Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Fury As Unvaccinated Novak Djokovic Is Granted Medical Exemption To Play In Australian Open

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After months of uncertainty and speculation, Novak Djokovic has announced that he will compete in the upcoming Australian Open after being granted a medical exemption from vaccination against Covid-19.

The world No 1 from Serbia had remained tight-lipped for some time over the prospect of a trip to Melbourne this month, preferring not to disclose his vaccination status.

Shortly after the start of the pandemic in 2020 he had expressed his reservations surrounding the concept of mandatory jabs to compete on the tour, a requirement that was eventually set by Australian health authorities in November.

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The saga has overshadowed the build-up to the first grand-slam tournament of the season, with the tournament director Craig Tiley admitting as recently as Sunday that he was still unsure whether Djokovic would turn up to defend his title. But confirmation finally came this morning when the 34-year-old posted a photograph with his luggage at an airport on social media. The event starts on January 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. “Let’s go 2022. I am ready to live and breathe tennis in the next few weeks of competition.”

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It is not clear as to the reason why Djokovic has been granted an exemption by the Australian health authorities. The anonymised process involves an initial review from an independent panel of doctors. A final decision is then made by a separate government-appointed panel of medical experts. Grounds include “inflammatory cardiac illness within the past three months” and a “current acute medical condition”.

Another possibility is that Djokovic has contracted Covid-19 for a second time recently — he first tested positive in June 2020 after holding a series of exhibition events in the Balkans. One of the guidelines allows an exemption to be issued if the applicant has tested positive and deferred vaccination up until six months after the infection.

“Djokovic applied for a medical exemption which was granted following a rigorous review process involving two separate independent panels of medical experts,” a Tennis Australia statement read. “One of those was the Independent Medical Exemption Review Panel appointed by the Victorian Department of Health. They assessed all applications to see if they met the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) guidelines.”

This is sure to be a huge talking point among players in the locker room over the coming days. Jamie Murray said this afternoon that he would not have put himself in the same position as Djokovic. “I think if it was me that wasn’t vaccinated I wouldn’t be getting an exemption,” Murray said. “But well done to him for getting clear to come to Australia and compete.”

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Djokovic is not the only person involved with the Australian Open to have received this authorisation. Tiley has admitted that out of more than 3,000 players, coaches and staff, a “small percentage” had been granted exemptions to enter the country despite being unvaccinated.

“Fair and independent protocols were established for assessing medical exemption applications that will enable us to ensure the Australian Open 2022 is safe and enjoyable for everyone,” Tiley said. “Central to this process was that the decisions were made by independent medical experts and that every applicant was given due consideration.”

The decision will no doubt attract a backlash in Melbourne, which has the unenviable status as the world’s most locked-down city during the pandemic, with six separate stay-at-home orders totalling 262 days. Last month James Merlino, the deputy state premier for Victoria, said that medical exemptions were “not a loophole for privileged tennis players”.

“Any player who is granted a medical exemption will have gone through a two-stage, independent process to verify they have a genuine medical condition that meets the criteria for an exemption,” a Victorian government spokesperson said today.

Confirmation of Djokovic’s exemption has come later than others, suggesting that this was processed at short notice. He was scheduled to compete for Serbia in this week’s ATP Cup in Sydney but withdrew last week without giving a reason. In recent days he was seen practising at tennis academies in the south of Spain.

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Photo Credit: Getty

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