Novak Djokovic’s fight to play unvaccinated tennis may only just begin


Novak Djokovic has battled adversity on his own and others since playing tennis.

He broke extraordinary records to become a champion, emerging from the former Yugoslavia despite economic hardships and conflict that made Serbia his homeland an international outcast and made travel and training difficult for him. Once on tour, he had to face Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, on their way to becoming two of football’s greatest players. Djokovic has caught up with them and now holds a career advantage in both rivalries. He was also ranked No.1 for a record 356 weeks.

Stubborn and resilient Djokovic has had tougher fights in his career than the one he faced this month with the Australian government over his visa. But this battle, which continues, is unlike any other he has encountered. It could cause him lasting damage despite his surprise victory in Australia on Monday, when a federal court overturned his visa revocation on procedural grounds. The decision still does not guarantee that he will not be deported by Australian immigration authorities before the Australian Open, which begins next Monday.

Djokovic’s five-day detention, ended by the court ruling, was a nod to the detentions of some long-time asylum seekers with whom he shared his Melbourne hotel. Djokovic, unlike some of his fellow tenants, was also free to leave the country at any time. But the experience must have been exhausting, and it came after a phenomenal but emotionally trying season in which he came to one game winning a Grand Slam before losing the US Open final to Daniil. Medvedev. He was also beaten in the Olympics and ATP Finals by Alexander Zverev.

Based on transcripts provided to federal court, he landed in Melbourne around midnight on Wednesday with the apparent belief that all of his papers were in order, including his medical exemption from vaccination. He quickly learned the opposite.

While it is highly unlikely that Djokovic, an outspoken vaccine skeptic, will find himself sequestered in another country again due to visa problems, Melbourne’s problems portend some of the headwinds he could face. in the coming months if he continues to try to travel. the world without being vaccinated against Covid-19.

Governments lack the patience to institute or debate vaccine mandates, and some tennis officials also lack patience. And the pace and direction of the coronavirus pandemic and its variants are unknown.

The next major touring events after the Australian Open are the Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells, California and Miami, both of which begin in March. But the United States now requires visitors to be fully vaccinated to travel to the country by plane, unless they are U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, or traveling on a U.S. immigrant visa. Only limited exceptions apply, and it’s unclear whether Djokovic would qualify for one or even try to qualify for one after the Australian mess.

The French Open, which is the next Grand Slam tournament of the season after the Australian Open, kicks off in May and looks less problematic. French Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu told French national radio last week that she expected Djokovic to be allowed to enter the country and compete if he is not vaccinated due to the health protocols planned for major international sporting events in France.

But in the same interview, Maracineanu stressed that any athlete, French or foreign, residing in France would be required to present proof of vaccination to have access to sports training facilities. It is a sign of the direction in which the mistral is blowing. Some professional leagues have left loopholes, but the gaps are narrowing for the unvaccinated as well.

Djokovic, who has long held non-traditional views on science and has taken unorthodox approaches to his health, finds himself in a distinct minority with over 90% of the top 100 players on the ATP Tour now vaccinated. If the ATP did not make any official statement of public support for Djokovic during his detention, it may not be because Djokovic is now leading a new group of players who have criticized ATP, but because the ATP has lobbied more and more for its members to be vaccinated.

In 2022, the tour will not require vaccinated players to take more than an initial test once they arrive at a tournament, unless they develop symptoms. Unvaccinated players and team members will need to be tested regularly, and the tour will no longer cover the cost of follow-up testing for the unvaccinated.

It won’t be a problem for Djokovic, who has won around $ 154 million in career prizes and hundreds of millions more off the pitch. But tour rules emphasize that Djokovic and the few remaining unvaccinated players are outliers.

Australian authorities barely enveloped themselves in glory during The Djokovic Affair. There have been mixed signals, conflicting memos and other communication issues between state and federal officials and Tennis Australia, which runs the Australian Open.

Had there been a united and cohesive effort that sent a clear message about the reasons for the medical exemptions from vaccination, Djokovic’s nighttime interview and visa cancellation could have been avoided.

He probably wouldn’t have risked going to Australia if he had understood that the federal government did not consider a recent case of Covid-19 as grounds for exemption. But as Djokovic won in court on Monday, he undoubtedly lost support in some chambers of the court of public opinion, despite becoming a martyr for the anti-vaccine movement and among his compatriots.

He is no accidental theatrical magnet. There have been too many of them over the years for it to be a coincidence. He could have avoided this one altogether by choosing to be vaccinated but amplified it by his willful refusal for months to clarify his plans for the Australian Open.

It’s his signature slam, the place where he won nine of his 20 Grand Slam singles titles. Djokovic felt that a positive test for Covid-19 gave him a medical exemption from vaccination, and the opportunity to try to win the Australian Open for a 10th time.

What is disturbing is that although he submitted a document to the court confirming this positive result of December 16, he, rather than isolating himself, participated in public events, some without a mask and others. involving children, in the days immediately following.

This should explain if he is staying for the Australian Open or if he is going. But then, he is hardly the only one in this sad and disorderly business to be explained.

Whether Djokovic stays or leaves, wins or loses, the uncertainty will not end in Melbourne. He faces a season full of tough choices as he tries to navigate an increasingly vaccinated world and workplace.


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