The Novak Djokovic Australian Open Controversy, Explained

The Novak Djokovic Australian Open Controversy, Explained thumbnail

Over the past few months, in the lead-up to this year’s Australian Open, conversation has been swirling around how exactly the tournament would enforce its mandate—announced last November—that all participants be fully vaccinated. Few players have become a lightning rod for this debate quite like Novak Djokovic, the Serbian world number one who has taken home the top trophy in Melbourne a record nine times—and is widely assumed to be unvaccinated. Today, after arriving on Australian soil with permission to play in the tournament thanks to a controversial vaccine exemption, Djokovic’s journey was cut short due to a visa snafu that saw him face lengthy questioning from authorities at the border. It was reported this afternoon that Djokovic is likely to be flown out of the country within the next 24 hours, with his lawyers expected to appeal the decision. 

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Djokovic has faced criticism for his attitude toward the virus. First, there were his controversial comments on vaccines, reported and translated by Reuters in April 2020 after Djokovic participated in a Facebook chat with fellow Serbian players. “Personally I am opposed to vaccination, and I wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel,” Djokovic said at the time. After the story hit international headlines, Djokovic issued a response through his management team that skirted the issue of whether or not he would take the vaccine in the name of public health. “I am no expert, but I do want to have an option to choose what’s best for my body,” he said. “I am keeping an open mind, and I’ll continue to research on this topic because it is important and it will affect all of us.”

Then, there was his ill-fated Adria Tour in June 2020, organized by Djokovic himself and held across Serbia and Croatia, which was denounced by the tennis press for allowing crowds to pack the stands without social-distancing measures and for footage of players partying after-hours. That resulted in numerous competitors contracting the virus, including Djokovic and his wife. (Subsequently, tour dates scheduled elsewhere in the Balkans were abruptly canceled.) Despite these controversies, last year Djokovic stormed to victory at Wimbledon, the French Open, and the Australian Open, only narrowly missing the Grand Slam. (He was defeated by Daniil Medvedev at the U.S. Open final in September.)

With this year’s first major fast approaching and the vaccine mandates firmly in place, many questioned whether Djokovic was running out of time to receive his jab and therefore compete in Melbourne. (In November, his father, Srdjan Djokovic, took to Serbian television to compare the restrictions to “blackmail,” adding that his son “probably won’t” play in this year’s Australian Open.) But as of yesterday, it appeared that the path had been cleared for Djokovic to compete when he took to Twitter to post an image of himself on an airfield, stating, “Today I’m heading Down Under with an exemption permission.”

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