Novak Djokovic out, but vaccine debate stays in Australian Open

Published January 17, 2022
Novak Djokovic prepares to take his seat on a plane to Belgrade, in Dubai on Monday. — AP
Novak Djokovic prepares to take his seat on a plane to Belgrade, in Dubai on Monday. — AP

To some, it seemed a cloud had been lifted from the Australian Open. To others, Novak Djokovic still was almost palpably present, the name on everyone's lips on the opening day of the first major tennis tournament of the year.

Djokovic left Australia late on Sunday when he failed to overturn the cancellation of his visa due to his lack of a Covid-19 vaccination. His flight from Melbourne was touching down in Dubai early Monday just as the first matches of the tournament began.

As the number one-ranked male player and the three-time defending champion, Djokovic would have been the marquee attraction of the tournament. In absentia, he still exercised an outsized influence on opening day.

When his Serbian Davis Cup teammate Dusan Lajovic beat Marton Fucsovics of Hungary in a tight five-setter, a Serbian fan immediately tweeted “Dusan Lajovic has avenged his Serbian brother by eliminating Martin Fucsovics.”

Fucsovics had angered Djokovic’s supporters before the tournament when he criticized Djokovic’s unvaccinated status, saying “people’s health is paramount and there are rules that were outlined months ago namely that everyone should vaccinate themselves and Djokovic didn’t.

”From this point of view, I don’t think he would have the right to be here.”

Djokovic received an exemption to vaccination rules to play in the Australian Open, based on a coronavirus infection in mid-December. But upon arrival, border officials said the exemption was not valid and moved to deport him — sparking a 10-day legal battle and an ongoing political drama.

After his win at Melbourne Park, Lajovic displayed a Serbian flag emblazoned with Djokovic’s image and the words “like it or not, The Greatest of All Time.”

The celebrated Australian tennis coach Darren Cahill told Australian television “the players are relieved” that Djokovic’s departure focused attention on tennis.

The former coach of world No. 1s Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt and Simona Halep told the Nine Network “there has been a cloud hanging over the players.

“I hated the exemption that he had because I think that exemption is really for people who want to get vaccinated and can’t get vaccinated because they have contracted Covid in the last three or six months and Novak never wanted to get vaccinated.”

'Doesn't matter if you are No.1, rules are rules'

Australian federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg rejected the assertion of Serbia President Alexander Vucic that Djokovic was mentally and physically mistreated prior to his departure from Australia.

“I completely reject those comments and make no apologies for the application of the rules here in Australia around our border protection policies that have helped keep us safe,” Frydenberg said.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re the No. 1 tennis player in the world or Betty from Utah, If you’re unvaccinated, the same rules apply, and that’s what’s applied here.

“The Australian Open … is a great celebration of tennis, and it’s much bigger than one individual player.”

Opinion remained divided worldwide on the No. 1 men’s tennis player and whether he should have been allowed to compete in the Australian Open despite not being vaccinated against Covid-19.

At a tennis center in Phoenix on Sunday, employee Stan Taylor said the lobby was abuzz with just one question as players arrived: “What do you think about Novak Djokovic?”

There was no consensus on whether the No. 1 men’s player had tried to game the system in seeking an exemption to Australia’s strict vaccination rules or had the right to defend his title at the Open. In the end, the country’s immigration minister revoked his visa on public interest grounds, and Djokovic was deported on Sunday.

Taylor said he knows Djokovic has favored unconventional approaches all his life, but he wanted to see the tennis star display leadership in the polarizing Covid-19 vaccine debate.

“I love to watch him do battle,” said Taylor, who lives in Phoenix and has closely followed the saga. “I’ve watched him snatch victory from the mouth of defeat. .... So he loves the game, but this thing was not something to get on the soapbox about. He chose the wrong fight, and he lost.”

Djokovic has overwhelming support from his home country of Serbia, whose president said Australia embarrassed itself and urged his countryman to return where he would be welcomed.

The tennis player has also been held up as a hero by some in the anti-vaccine movement. One protester raised a poster in support of the tennis star at a rally in the Netherlands on Sunday.

Others were quick to criticize. One of Italy’s greatest tennis players, Adriano Panatta, called Djokovic’s expulsion from Australia “the most natural epilogue of this affair.”

“I don’t see how Australia could have granted the visa. He committed big errors, he created an international case when he could have done without that,” Panatta said to the Italian news agency LaPresse.

French tennis player Alize Cornet, meanwhile, expressed sympathy while reserving judgment.

“I know too little to judge the situation,” she posted on Twitter. “What I know is that Novak is always the first one to stand up for the players. But none of us stood for him. Be strong.”

'Hope such a situation won't repeat next time': Murray

British player Andy Murray said he hoped that such a situation wouldn’t be repeated at the next tournament.

It's not clear where Djokovic will play next, and he is the defending champion at the next scheduled major, the French Open in May-June.

At this stage, he could still play — if virus rules don’t change before then. French Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu confirmed earlier this month that Djokovic would qualify for a “health bubble” that allows unvaccinated players to train and play.

The same could be true for Wimbledon, where he is also the defending champion. England has allowed exemptions from various coronavirus regulations for visiting athletes, if they remain at their accommodation when not competing or training.

The US Tennis Association, which runs the US Open, has said it will follow government rules on vaccination status.

A Djokovic appearance at those tournaments certainly would attract those who want to see great players in action, said Dillon McNamara, who runs a tennis academy in Las Vegas.

“I’m not a Novak Djokovic fan at all ... but I would have really liked to see him play,” he said, arguing the Australian Open could have put measures in place to keep the tournament safe beyond barring the unvaccinated.

Perhaps there is only one thing everyone can agree on.

As Murray put it: “The situation has not been good all-round for anyone.”

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