Novak Djokovic has still not confirmed if he will travel Down Under for next month’s Australian Open.
The nine-time champion’s participation at the season-opening Grand Slam is in doubt due to the vexed issue of strict vaccine requirements in Melbourne.
Djokovic is due to headline the evening session on the opening night of the ATP Cup team event on January 1, but he has yet to confirm his presence at that tournament even to event organisers. His vaccine scepticism is well-documented.
Novak Djokovic lowers his mask to cheer at a basketball game in Serbia last week
He was keeping a high profile in Belgrade in the past two weeks, looking very relaxed while attending a basketball game and functions related to his charitable foundation.
For all that he is yet to say definitively whether he will play.
Whatever his views, the temptation to go must be overwhelming, given that he stands on twenty Grand Slam titles each with Federer and Nadal, that Melbourne is his ‘banker’, and that both Daniil Medvedev and Alex Zverev are now genuine challengers.
On social media there has been an air of schadenfreude among his fans about the diagnosis of the vocally pro-vaccine Nadal.
Tuesday brought more announcements from players who will either delay their trip to Australia or abandon it altogether.
Olympic gold medallist, Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic, became the latest player to reveal that she has caught Covid, following on from Monday’s news of Rafael Nadal.
His participation is in doubt due to the vexed issue of strict vaccine requirements in Melbourne
The Spaniard’s coach, former world No 1 Carlos Moya, also reported that he has the virus and is self-isolating. World number 32 Karolina Muchova was another announcing her withdrawal while last year’s beaten finalist, American Jennifer Brady, is also a non-traveller.
With the steady drip-feed of absentees, the hope that this will be an entirely ‘normal’ Australian Open after all the disruption of 2021 becomes increasingly remote.
Roger Federer and Serena Williams are already out, and even before his diagnosis Nadal suggested he might not be ready due to his slow recovery from foot problems.
Wimbleton finalist Karolina Pliskova (hand injury) is a no-show, world number four Stefanos Tsitsipas another doubt, while 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu cited her mental health as the reason not to go.
The spread of the Omicron virus around the world is only complicating a picture already muddied by vexed issue of strict vaccine requirements in Melbourne.
The latest numbers from the WTA Tour say that, as at the end of last week, 85% of the world’s top 100 women are vaccinated.
Rafa Nadal cannot guarantee he will make the trip to Melbourne for the Australian Open
With less than two weeks to go before the first events of next season that is an uplift from the two thirds figure being reported in the autumn, but it does suggest that some will be simply ineligible to play.
It also raises the likelihood that there are players, both men and women, who do not wish to travel and may not be giving the full reasons for the decision to stay at home. So far the only players to have straightforwardly said that the vaccine issue is stopping them playing are Frenchman Pierre Hugues Herbert, Australian Olivia Gadecki and Russian Natalia Vikhlyantseva. The latter pointed out that the Russian version, Sputnik, is not accepted.
The list of real and potential absentees is hardly ideal for an event which ran at a huge deficit this year, due to reduced crowds and the heavy extra costs of staging it during the pandemic.
Tennis Australia’s annual report revealed earlier this month that the organisation made a net loss of around £54 million in the past 15 months, and that its cash reserves are exhausted.
On the upside, there are due to be few restrictions on any visitor fully vaccinated this year. However, Omicron cases are growing fast in both Melbourne and Sydney and caps on spectator numbers at the Open are not ruled out.
As for the players going – still the large majority – many will be following the lead of Andy Murray and minimising their festive contacts, trying to ensure that they can take their post-Christmas flights to Australia.