Australians reacted with fury on Wednesday after world number one Novak Djokovic received a medical exemption from having a Covid vaccine in order to play at this month’s Australian Open.
Tournament chief Craig Tiley said that the defending champion had been given “no special favour” but urged the Serb to reveal why he got the exemption to soothe public anger.
All participants at the first Grand Slam of 2022, which starts on January 17, must be vaccinated against Covid-19 or have a medical exemption, which is granted only after assessment by two panels of independent experts.
The nine-time Australian Open champion announced late Tuesday he was en route to Melbourne with “an exemption permission”, ending the drawn-out saga over whether he would defend his title.
But Stephen Parnis, a former Australian Medical Association vice-president, said it sent an “appalling message” to people trying to stop the spread of Covid-19.
“I don’t care how good a tennis player he is. If he’s refusing to get vaccinated, he shouldn’t be allowed in,” Parnis said on Twitter.
Australian Prime Minster Scott Morrison said that if the reasons for Djokovic’s exemption were “insufficient” then the Serb would be “on the next plane home”.
“We await his presentation and what evidence he provides us to support (his exemption),” Morrison told a press conference.
“If that evidence is insufficient, then he won’t be treated any different to anyone else and will be on the next plane home. There should be no special rules for Novak Djokovic at all. None whatsoever.”
Former Australian ATP Tour player Sam Groth, now a television commentator, said it was “a decision that spits in the face of every Victorian and Australian” in a column in Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper.
There was also outrage on the streets of Melbourne.
“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,” resident Ron Wilson told AFP.
Other residents of the Victoria state city were more sympathetic, with Morteza Yari saying: “I think as long as the exemption is valid and they have valid reasons I don’t see a problem with that.”
Among the conditions allowing entry without a vaccine is if a person has had Covid-19 in the past six months. It has not been revealed if that was the case with Djokovic.
‘Sick hypocrisy’ –
Tiley said the two panels assessed each exemption without knowing the identity of the applicant and he did not know under what grounds Djokovic got the green light, which is confidential.
“It will certainly be helpful if Novak was to explain the conditions in which he sought and was granted an exemption,” Tiley told reporters, acknowledging the backlash.
“I would encourage him to talk to the community about it… we have been through a very tough period over the last two years and would appreciate some answers to that.”
Groth agreed that Djokovic should reveal why he has been allowed in.
“You’re willing to say you have an exemption but not willing to say why? It’s sick hypocrisy. I don’t like it at all,” Groth wrote.
However, Tiley defended the integrity of the exemption application process, which is overseen by national and Victorian state governments.
He revealed that only 26 of the approximately 3,000 players and support staff travelling to Australia for the tournament had applied for a vaccine exemption. Only a few of those had been successful.
“Any person who met those conditions has been allowed to come in. There’s been no special favour. There’s been no special opportunity granted to Novak,” Tiley said.
Melbourne and Sydney have both endured months of restrictions and lockdowns over the past two years and allowing Djokovic to travel was widely criticised.
“If this exemption is true, it sends an appalling message to millions seeking to reduce #Covid19Aus risk to themselves & others,” added Parnis.
Djokovic voiced his opposition to the Covid-19 vaccine in April 2020 when it was suggested they might be obligatory so tournament play could resume.
“Personally I am not pro-vaccines,” said Djokovic at the time. “I would not like it for someone to compel me to be vaccinated so I can travel.”
Some players expressed surprise with the exemption, 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.”