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Australian Open 2022: Why has Novak Djokovic’s vaccination ‘exemption’ snowballed into a controversy?

After weeks of suspense over the participation of Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open, scheduled to begin on 17 January, we finally have clarity on the World No 1’s presence at the first Grand Slam of the year.

Djokovic, nine time winner at Melbourne Park, will be chasing his 21st Grand Slam title Down Under after receiving an “exemption permission” to travel to Melbourne from Spain’s Marbella, where he spent his holidays.

 

Tennis Twitter went into overdrive over Djokovic’s participation, with some celebrating the news while some wondering about the medical exemption he sought to play the event.

So, what is the big deal about these medical exemptions and how did the tennis world react?

Australian Open rules

Tennis Australia, the organising of the Australian Open, had drafted a set of rules back in November, which mandated that all staff members, players and even those in attendance at the event must be vaccinated against coronavirus or have a medical exemption granted by an independent panel of experts.

These rules were in accordance to the Victorian government (click link here for the entire guideline).

The rules clearly specify when a medical exemption can be granted:

  • Inflammatory cardiac illness in the last three months
  • Undergoing major surgery or hospital admission for a serious illness
  • A COVID-19 diagnosis that means vaccination cannot be made for six months
  • Any serious effect to a COVID-19 vaccine in the past
  • If the vaccine is a risk to themselves or others during the vaccination process
  • Underlying developmental or mental health disorders

In reference to reports that Djokovic may be allowed to enter Australia without vaccinating against coronavirus, the state’s deputy premier James Merlino had said in December: “They’re the rules. Medical exemptions are just that — it’s not a loophole for privileged tennis players.”

 

How did Tennis Australia react

“Novak Djokovic will compete at the Australian Open and is on his way to Australia,” an Australia Open media statement read on Tuesday.

“Djokovic applied for a medical exemption which was granted following a rigorous review process involving two separate independent panels of medical experts,” the statement added.

 

Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley had last week confirmed that a number of players had been granted exemptions, without naming Djokovic, while explaining the process involved.

“There are two medical panels that assess any application, and they assess it in a blind way. They don’t know who the applicant is,” he told reporters.

“Against the ATAGI (Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation) guidelines, an exemption gets granted or not. The reason for granting that exemption remains private, between the panel and the applicant.”

He said on Tuesday there had to have been a “genuine reason” to grant an exemption.

“Central to this process was that the decisions were made by independent medical experts and that every applicant was given due consideration,” he said.

Djokovic on vaccines

The world number one has remained elusive on his COVID-19 vaccination status. In November, while playing the season-ending ATP Finals in Turin, the Serbian had said, “The freedom of choice is essential for everyone, whether it’s me or somebody else. Doesn’t really matter whether it’s vaccination or anything else in life. You should have the freedom to choose, to decide what you want to do. In this particular case, what you want to put in your body.”

He had added, “I understand you want answers on where and how I am going to start the new season, but we’ll see what the future holds.”

In April 2020, when it was suggested that vaccination may become obligatory for players, Djokovic had voiced his opposition, saying: “Personally I am not pro-vaccines. I would not like it for someone to compel me to be vaccinated so I can travel. But if it becomes compulsory, what will happen? I will have to make a decision.”

Djokovic also invited wrath from a lot of people when his 2020 charity event in Belgrade turned into a COVID-19 hotspot with a number of top players – including Djokovic – testing positive following the tournament which appeared to ignore social-distancing.

Players and fans react

Soon after it was announced that Djokovic would play at the Australian Open, double specialist Jamie Murray, reacted as saying, “you kind of have to trust that he does have a valid reason for the medical exemption”.

 

Tennis fans too reacted to the news and it wasn’t all celebratory.

 

Another Twitter user called him ‘absolutely disgusting’.

 

However, there were others who congratulated him for ‘standing his ground’.

 

 

Players skipping Australian Open

Owing to the rules, France’s Pierre-Hugues Herbert had announced that he would be skipping the event in Australia. Similarly, two-time quarterfinalist Tennys Sandgren also pulled out of the event because of the vaccination requirement.

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