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Novak Djokovic’s vaccine exemption for Australian Open is met with skepticism

Australian authorities pushed back on Jan. 5 to say that Novak Djokovic didn’t receive special treatment to play at the tournament in Melbourne. (Video: Reuters)

Novak Djokovic used two exclamation points and an emoji of a flexed biceps Tuesday in announcing that he had been granted an exemption from coronavirus vaccination, enabling him to defend his Australian Open title.

But it’s unclear whether the perennially sunny fans at Melbourne Park, host of the season’s first Grand Slam, will share Djokovic’s enthusiasm, given the strict protocols that all Australians have been subject to during the pandemic.

The top-ranked Djokovic, who is tied with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the men’s record with 20 major titles, was first to publicize his participation in the tournament, posting on Instagram on Tuesday morning that he had been granted the medical exemption.

He had previously declined to reveal his vaccination status and indicated he was uncertain about competing for a 10th Australian Open title and history-making 21st major. Federer previously announced he won’t play, but Nadal will, having already arrived in Australia to begin preparations. The tournament begins Jan. 17.

“I’ve spent fantastic quality time with my loved ones over the break and today I’m heading Down Under with an exemption permission,” Djokovic wrote on Instagram, next to an image of him with his gear at an airport. “Let’s go 2022!!”

Tournament officials followed with a statement confirming the news and expanding on the process, saying the decision was approved by independent experts. The government of the state of Victoria, in which Melbourne is located, had mandated that all players, staff and fans at the Australian Open be fully vaccinated unless a legitimate reason for an exemption exists.

“Djokovic applied for a medical exemption which was granted following a rigorous review process involving two separate independent panels of medical experts,” tournament organizers said in a statement. “One of those was the Independent Medical Exemption Review Panel appointed by the Victorian Department of Health.”

Djokovic isn’t the only player to have been granted a medical exemption. Tournament officials acknowledged that “a handful” of others had but declined to say how many.

While Djokovic supporters cheered the news, the pushback was swift and strong from other quarters in the sport.

British doubles specialist Jamie Murray, asked his opinion of the decision during a news conference at the ATP Cup in Sydney, said, “I think if it was me that wasn’t vaccinated, I wouldn’t be getting an exemption.”

Tennis commentator David Law pointed out that it ran counter to the unequivocal remarks of James Merlino, deputy premier of Victoria, in rebutting a December report that Djokovic would be allowed to enter the season-opening Grand Slam via a medical exemption.

“Medical exemptions are just that — it’s not a ‘loophole’ for privileged tennis players,” Merlino said at the time. “If you’re expected to be fully vaccinated to watch the Australian Open, if you’re expected to be fully vaccinated to be an official or work at the Australian Open, there is an expectation that any player should be fully vaccinated.”

Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews was the target of much criticism. One Twitter user asked whether he could “swing an exemption for all the unvaccinated teachers, police officers, nurses…” Earlier this week, Victoria reported 8,577 new coronavirus cases, passing the previous peak of 7,442 on Jan. 1.

Oliver Brown, chief sportswriter for Britain’s Telegraph, argued that the decision showed Australia’s hard-line covid-19 protocols didn’t apply to the rich and famous and predicted widespread resentment toward Djokovic as a result.

“When you have had ‘the rules’ drummed into you ad nauseam by an overzealous state premier, you will hardly relish the prospect of a multimillionaire tennis player running roughshod over the same procedures,” Brown wrote.

Kate Miller, who identified herself as a consultant geriatrician, tweeted: “After everything Victorians have been through, Novak Djokovic getting a vaccine exemption is nothing short of a kick in the guts. All those lockdowns, all that suffering. Seriously?”

Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said the criteria for evaluating applications for medical exemptions were “fair and independent.” Personal information was redacted from the application process.

Australian former basketball star Andrew Bogut simply laughed via Twitter.

ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert, a former player and coach, characterized the issues around the decision as “a really complex situation.” But in terms of tennis, Gilbert characterized Djokovic’s participation as a potential game-changer for the tournament and for this moment in men’s tennis history.

“When he is at his supreme best on that court, he’s the most dominant player on any court I’ve seen in my life, along with [Nadal] on the clay in Paris,” Gilbert said in a phone interview. “On this surface, it’s up to the other to stop him from getting blackjack: 21.”

Meet the beloved former college coach tasked with staging the Australian Open in a pandemic

Djokovic’s response, and that of his team, to various protocols instituted to combat the pandemic has been alternately blithe, coy and hostile over the past 18 months. In June 2020, Djokovic, his wife, fellow player Grigor Dimitrov and a handful of coaches and trainers tested positive for the coronavirus after taking part in a short-lived exhibition he created in Serbia and Croatia, known as the Adria Tour, which was staged with minimal pandemic precautions.

Djokovic recovered in time to compete in the U.S. Open two months later.

In November 2021, after Australian Open officials announced that only vaccinated players would be allowed to compete, Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, called the policy “blackmail” and said his son probably wouldn’t defend his title as a result.

As for the reception Djokovic is likely to receive at Melbourne Park, Gilbert noted that he has a huge and vocal Serbian following that travels widely to cheer him on. “Assuming those Serbians will be vaccinated and in the stands, he’ll get huge support,” he said.

What to read about sports and the pandemic

The NFL, NBA and NHL have all updated their coronavirus protocols amid an uptick in coronavirus cases among players and team officials.

NHL players will not participate in the Beijing Winter Olympics, following a spike in cases among players and the rise of the omicron variant.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver dismissed the notion that the NBA would temporarily suspend play in response to omicron.

Should healthy, vaccinated pro athletes who test positive play on? Not yet, experts say.

Jerry Brewer: The NFL’s new covid approach is smart for making money — and bad for public health

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