WIMBLETON 2021

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Australian Open: Novak Djokovic can expect a hostile welcome from fellow pros and the public

MIKE DICKSON: Novak Djokovic can expect a hostile welcome from fellow pros and public after anti-vax world No 1 was granted a rare exemption for the Australian Open – his successful request is likely to go down like a LEAD tennis ball in Melbourne

  • Anti-vax Novak Djokovic was handed a loophole to play at the Australian Open 
  • The Serb’s vaccine scepticism is well documented, and he has managed to persuade two different panels that he needs an exemption from being jabbed 
  • Sportsmail understands Djokovic’s application was backed by supporting letters from doctors in Serbia
  • The world No 1 can now compete – but it is unlikely to be the end of the matter  

By Mike Dickson for the Daily Mail

Published: | Updated:

Novak Djokovic faces a hostile reception from the public and his fellow players after finally revealing that he will defend his Australian Open title this month.

The world No 1’s successful request for a rare exemption from vaccine requirements is likely to go down like a lead tennis ball in Melbourne. It was already late in the Australian evening when Djokovic released a picture of himself set to board a plane, but the reaction was swift.

Jamie Murray suggested that it was another example of tennis favouring its star players.

Novak Djokovic faces a hostile reception from the public and his fellow players in Australia 

The world No 1’s successfully requested for a rare exemption from vaccine requirements

‘If it was me that wasn’t vaccinated I wouldn’t be getting an exemption,’ he said. ‘But well done to him for getting clear to come to Australia and compete.’ 

Alex de Minaur, one of the host nation’s leading stars, did little to hide his scepticism, commenting: ‘I just think it’s very interesting. That’s all I’m going to say.’

Separate sources said early reactions from within the locker room were similar, especially among some Eastern Europeans who have only reluctantly agreed to have themselves jabbed.

Tennis Australia has been keen to distance itself from the whole process of who will be allowed in to the event, which is marketing itself as somewhere fans and workers — all of whom must be vaccinated to attend — can visit in the knowledge that safety is paramount.

Both Jamie Murray (L) and Alex de Minaur (R) have had their say on Djokovic’s exemption 

Djokovic’s vaccine scepticism is well documented, and he has managed to persuade two different panels that he needs an exemption from being jabbed. The tournament confirmed later that the nine-time champion, who is tied with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer on 20 Grand Slam titles, was officially granted a medical exemption.

It is unlikely to play well in a city which late last year became the place to have been locked down longer than anywhere else in the world.

What’s more, Melbourne is facing a huge spike in Covid cases. In the first three days of 2022 it recorded a higher number than in all of 2020 put together. Melburnians may well ask, when they have to show proof of vaccination to sit in a cafe or go to work, why one of the world’s greatest athletes is so medically compromised he can claim an exemption.

Sportsmail understands Djokovic’s application was backed by supporting letters from doctors in Serbia.

Sportsmail understands Djokovic’s application was backed by supporting letters from doctors in Serbia

‘I’ve spent fantastic quality time with my loved ones over the break and today I’m heading Down Under with an exemption permission. Let’s go 2022!’ said a beaming Djokovic on Instagram, posing in front of what looked like an airfield with private jets parked up.

After a sluggish initial take-up, figures from the ATP and WTA tours suggest around 90 per cent of tennis players are now fully vaccinated. 

Djokovic has had the most focus upon him but a handful of others have also made it to Australia with an exemption, while two-time quarter-finalist Tennys Sandgren was confirmed on Tuesday as someone who had simply refused to travel.

American Tennys Sandgren was confirmed as someone who had simply refused to travel

Tennis Australia supremo Craig Tiley insisted the process was independently managed and that the experts were unaware of the identities of those applying, but the optics surrounding Djokovic’s admission are likely to be a PR disaster — not just for him but the tournament as well. 

It already has a goodwill deficit from last year with locals, many of whom are resentful at what they saw as special treatment for players.

Although tennis crowds are not known for their hostility, the reception Djokovic receives could have fascinating repercussions. He is a granite-hard competitor but can be vulnerable to stadiums taking against him. 

Djokovic has not declared his coronavirus status but has been sceptical about the vaccine

He almost sobbed with gratitude at the way Flushing Meadows generously treated him while he was losing September’s US Open final.

In terms of his peers, tennis players are always sensitive about others getting what might be perceived as an edge. While Djokovic is now free to compete in Melbourne, this is unlikely to be the end of the matter.

Other large tournaments, such as those in the United States and France, are set to bring in vaccine mandates this year. It is hard to imagine Wimbleton acting any differently if it becomes the norm.

WHY IS DJOKOVIC EXEMPT? 

Australia’s Department of Health says medical exemptions are handed out if the individual has an ‚acute major medical condition‘.

Under the guidelines, these conditions could include: 

– 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 (Note: Djokovic has not confirmed whether or not he has been jabbed)

– If the vaccine is a risk to themselves or others during the vaccination process 

– Underlying developmental or mental health disorders 

Australia’s Deputy Premier James Merlino said last month that medical exemptions are ’not a loophole‘. 

‚Medical exemptions are just that,‘ he said. ‚It’s not a loophole for privileged tennis players. 

‚They are medical exemptions in exceptional circumstances – if you have acute medical conditions.‘