The decision to award the world’s top-ranked tennis player Novak Djokovic a medical exemption to travel to Melbourne to defend his Australian Open title has prompted an outcry on social media and criticism from other sportspeople, medical professionals and politicians.
The Serb, who is seeking a record 21st Grand Slam singles title, has continually refused to reveal if he is vaccinated against the coronavirus.
He has been vocal in his opposition for vaccine mandates, calling for freedom across the world. On Tuesday, Djokovic wrote on Instagram he has “an exemption permission”.
Happy New Year! Wishing you all health, love & joy in every moment & may you feel love & respect towards all beings on this wonderful planet.
I’ve spent fantastic quality time with loved ones over break & today I’m heading Down Under with an exemption permission. Let’s go 2022! pic.twitter.com/e688iSO2d4
— Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) January 4, 2022
Australian Open organisers quickly responded with a statement confirming Djokovic was on his way to Australia to compete at the tournament, which starts on January 17.
“Djokovic applied for a medical exemption which was granted following a rigorous review process involving two separate independent panels of medical experts,” the statement said.
The Victorian state government has mandated that all players, staff and fans attending the Australian Open must be fully vaccinated unless there is a genuine reason why an exemption should be granted.
On Wednesday, Australia’s daily COVID-19 cases hit a record high for the third consecutive day, further straining hospital resources and testing facilities as public anger grows over the handling of the fast-moving Omicron outbreak.
Officials reported a record 64,758 new cases on Wednesday, the majority in New South Wales and Victoria, the country’s most populous states.
Whoever knocks Djokovic out of the #AusOpen may never need to buy a beer In Australia ever again.
— Matt Walsh (@MattWalshMedia) January 4, 2022
‘Taken for fools’
Following the announcement, former Australian Rules player Kevin Bartlett tweeted that Australians “have been taken for fools”.
Another former player, Corey McKernan, tweeted: “People with loved ones who are dying/some needing urgent treatment cannot get into their own states. You tell people they can’t go to Coles or a cafe without being vaxxed but if you’re world number one you get a pass?”
Many Australians, and particularly those in Melbourne which hosts the tournament, have been subjected to a series of lengthy lockdowns over the past two years.
Federal and state government heavily pushed the importance of vaccinations. As a result, 90 percent of people over 16 have been double dosed and a booster programme is rolling out.
“It sends an appalling message to millions seeking to reduce #COVID19Aus risk to themselves & others. #Vaccination shows respect, Novak,” tweeted Stephen Parnis, a former vice-president of the Australian Medical Association.
“I don’t care how good a tennis player he is. If he’s refusing to get vaccinated, he shouldn’t be allowed in.”
Australian Open ballboys heading onto centre court for a Novak Djokovic match: pic.twitter.com/OvufsnsHEL
— Byron Kaye (@byronkaye) January 4, 2022
Tennis Australia and the Victorian state government said Djokovic did not receive any special treatment in a blind review process.
Tennis Australia said the process included the “redaction of personal information to ensure privacy for all applicants”, with details of names, ages and nationalities removed.
Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said “fair and independent protocols” were established for assessing medical exemption applications” and Djokovic went through that “completely legitimate application and process”.
On Wednesday, Tiley said 26 players or support staff made anonymous applications for a medical exemption, although only a “handful” were granted.
Last month, Victoria state Deputy Premier James Merlino insisted medical exemptions would not be “a loophole for privileged tennis players” and would only be possible in “exceptional circumstances if you have an acute medical condition”.
“Lots of people in the Victorian community will find this to be a disappointing outcome, but the process is the process,” Jaala Pulford, the state’s acting minister for sports, said on Wednesday. “No one is or will be receiving special treatment because of who they are or what they have achieved professionally.”
After everything Victorians have been through, Novak Djokovic getting a vaccine exemption is nothing short of a kick in the guts. All those lockdowns, all that suffering. Seriously? #auspol
— Dr Kate Miller (@DrKate_Miller) January 4, 2022
Some players expressed surprise with the ruling, including British doubles player Jamie Murray who said at the ATP Cup in Sydney: “I think if it was me that wasn’t vaccinated, I wouldn’t be getting an exemption.”
There was also outrage on the streets of Melbourne, with resident Ron Wilson telling AFP news agency: “I think it’s disgusting. I think he should have made his mind up before now and it shouldn’t be a last-minute decision to get him in.”
There is no cap on crowd numbers for the 2022 tournament and no strict hotel quarantine for players, although proof of double vaccination for COVID-19 is a requirement for entry and players will undergo daily testing.
Djokovic will avoid hotel quarantine upon arrival, with visitors to Australia who have medical exemptions for the vaccination treated the same as fully vaccinated people.
The 34-year-old Djokovic has won nine of his 20 major titles at the Australian Open. He shares the men’s record for most majors with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
I’ve always been a supporter of Dan Andrews, the State government and Vic Health, but I wholeheartedly disagree with the decision to grant an exemption to Djokovic. It’s a kick in the guts to many Victorians and I can’t fathom why it’s happened. #DjokovicOut
— Donna MacKinnon 🐀🐯🌏🌈💉💉💉 (@DMacKinnonAU) January 4, 2022