Unvaccinated Djokovic Sparks Australian Open Saga

Jack Schoen, Staff Writer

Following one of the more dominant runs in the history of men’s singles tennis, the 2021 Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic was not able to defend his title due to his unvaccinated status. Djokovic, winner of the joint record 20 Grand Slam men’s singles titles, hoped to return to form after a disappointing loss at the U.S. Open in Sept. 

The Djokovic saga began in mid-December, when the Serbian tennis player tested positive for COVID-19. Djokovic, a well-known vaccine skeptic, has spoken publicly against vaccine requirements in the athletic sphere. He was heavily scrutinized for attending charity and publicity events maskless, especially after testing positive for COVID-19. The Australian government, given its harsh restrictions on unvaccinated people entering the country, challenge Djokovic’s relaxed attitude towards vaccinations and masking. 

In early January, it appeared that Djokovic was going to be able to participate in the tournament. Tennis Australia reached out to Djokovic’s team, saying he would be allowed to enter the country under a medical exemption, given that he had recently tested positive and fully recovered. On Jan. 4th, he posted on Instagram “I’m heading Down Under with an exemption” before boarding a flight to Melbourne. 

Many citizens in Australia, where COVID-19 hospitalization rates have increased after the emergence of the omicron variant, voiced concerns about Djokovic’s arrival on the island. Several individuals also reported to Reuters that Djokovic was seen traveling during his mandatory quarantine before entering Australia, and a picture of Djokovic playing street tennis in Belgrade resurfaced. Many people began to protest his involvement in the Australian Open. He was soon forced to depart from Melbourne after a federal court threw out his appeal. He flew back to Europe saying that he was disappointed by the ruling but also that he had to accept it. 

Almost a week later, concerns arose about the legitimacy of the positive test that he submitted to participate in the tournament. The BBC reported oddities in the serial numbers of the tests administered by the Serbian athletic commissions, suggesting that they may be forgeries. Djokovic, his representation, and the Serbian Institute of Public Health have yet to comment on the allegations. If valid, these allegations could lead to further punishment and public outcry. Several individuals involved in the sport, including members of the press and notable figures like tennis legend John McEnroe, have called for an investigation into the validity of the positive test. Djokovic’s participation in the French Open in early May has also been questioned, as he continues to remain unvaccinated. 

Whatever happens to Djokovic moving forward, his detention in Australia and eventual departure continue to highlight the oddities of athletics in the time of COVID-19. As with the controversy surrounding other notable athletes like Kyrie Irving and Aaron Rodgers, Djokovic’s fight against the Australian government indicates that unvaccinated players are risking a lot by refusing to get the shot. Djokovic is 34 years old, and although he still is seemingly at the top of his game, he may not have that many years left. If he is forced to spend the tail end of his prime at home (or in this case, in hotel suites), it is impossible to know how many records and championships he could be risking. As Djokovic moves forward, he will have to weigh the options of getting vaccinated and playing in the Australian Open while striving for the most major titles of all time, or staying put and risking an even more pronounced absence.