After months of deliberation and a slew of canceled and re-canceled visas, Novak Djokovic –– the No. 1 men’s tennis player in the world –– was officially disqualified from the 2022 Australian Open on Jan. 16 due to his vaccination status. The player has been publicly outspoken about his refusal to get vaccinated, as well as his resistance to nation-specific public safety mandates.
“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 in April 2020.
Djokovic clarified his stance in an August 2020 interview: “My issue here with vaccines is if someone is forcing me to put something in my body. … How are we expecting that to solve our problem when this coronavirus is mutating regularly from what I understand?”
In October 2021, when asked about his vaccination status in an interview with the Serbian magazine Blic, Djokovic said, “I will not reveal my status whether I was vaccinated or not. It is a private matter. … That is an immoderate question. … (The media) spreads fear and panic among people, and I do not want to participate in that rift. I feel that everyone is hostile. I don’t want to give them a reason to write some things about me.”
Yet, here all of the news outlets are, with many a reason to write about Djokovic.
Djokovic, of course, is able to refuse the vaccine as forcible administration lies beyond the bounds of governmental intervention. Given Djokovic’s response to Blic, the public cannot be 100% certain he isn’t vaccinated, but there are certain consequences he must be aware of in not revealing his vaccination status.
“You’ll need to be double vaccinated to visit Australia. That’s a universal application, not just to tennis players,” Australia’s minister for immigration noted in October 2021.
Naturally, this set the stage for a tough legal battle, but this is where it gets a little messy.
On Jan. 4, Djokovic was granted a medical exemption by Tennis Australia, the organizers of the Australian Open. The next day, Djokovic arrived at the Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne where he was subsequently detained as his visa was canceled. On Jan. 10, Djokovic won an appeal facing deportation, getting back on track to play at the so-called “Happy Slam.” Djokovic claimed that he had tested positive the previous month — and was therefore immunized — to win the appeal.
Things were looking good for the 20-time Grand Slam champion.
However, Djokovic would eventually admit to breaking his isolation while knowingly being positive.
This is not the first time he failed to take COVID-19 precautions seriously. In June 2020, Djokovic organized and hosted the Adria Tour in Belgrade, but the tournament was abruptly canceled when he and several other players tested positive for COVID-19. The now-notorious tournament featured very little social distancing, packed stadiums and players partying with the locals; it very well may have caused a surge in COVID-19 cases in his home country.
The Australian Minister for Immigration would then exercise his power to cancel Djokovic’s visa again. This time Djokovic would not win his appeal and would be deported.
Now that the organizers for the French Open are looking to place similar restrictions on unvaccinated players, the solution for Djokovic seems quite simple: Get vaccinated.
Since the tournament is in May, Djokovic could still have a chance to play since testing positive for COVID-19 in the previous six months could warrant an exemption.
In this case, however, much of the blame likely rests on Tennis Australia for giving Djokovic the exemption in the first place, knowing full well that he would likely get deported.
Djokovic has already racked up a somewhat negative reputation for his antics both off and on the court (i.e., accidentally striking a line judge with an angry fastball at the U.S. Open in 2020 and seemingly abusing injury timeouts when he’s losing), so his controversial disqualification from the Australian Open should not especially hurt his reputation.
As for Djokovic’s on-court legacy, this could be either a major blow or a minor setback. Djokovic, along with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, is considered one of the greatest tennis players ever, so winning one more Grand Slam and breaking the tie with Nadal and Federer (all three have 20) would cement his legacy as the greatest.
If he is ever allowed to participate in another Grand Slam is yet to be seen.
Abhi Erra covers men’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected].