Comment – Novak Djokovic walking into a storm after controversial Australian Open exemption

Kevin Palmer
Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic

After months of speculation and endless debate over Novak Djokovic’s participation in the Australian Open, the long-awaited answer we have to the hottest topic in tennis will be seen by many as unsatisfactory.

We now know that an unvaccinated Djokovic will defend his title in Melbourne after all, after he was granted a late medical exemption that allows him to travel to Australia and into a storm that will not help his hopes of performing at a venue that has brought him so much success.

In many ways, this was the worst-case scenario for this story as it will elevate the debate to new levels, with the man in the centre of the storm set for a rocky ride over the next few weeks in Melbourne.

So how do we begin to sum up a circus that could have been shut down long ago, but has been allowed to become a storm due to Djokovic’s refusal to end the debate?

From the moment Australian tennis chiefs confirmed all players taking part in the first Grand Slam event of 2022 would need to be vaccinated against Covid-19, the spotlight fell on Djokovic in a soap opera promoted by the world No 1’s refusal to give definitive answers on his own position.

There has long been a perception that the nine-time Australian Open champion had not been vaccinated, with his persistent evasion over the question adding to the noise around a story that has overshadowed the game in recent months.

Like so many high-profile players in the game, Djokovic has had ample chances to offer clarity on his vaccine status, with his refusal to answer the pressing questions leaving an information void that has been filled by a variety of unwelcome hangers-on.

The Australian public and high-profile politicians have been hostile to the idea that Djokovic would get an exemption to play in Melbourne, while the attention-seeking anti-vaxxer cult have jumped on the chance to appoint Djokovic as the hero of their global misinformation campaign.

So after it was confirmed on Tuesday that the unvaccinated Djokovic has been given the medical exception he has been seeking over the last few weeks, it’s hard to see how anyone is emerging from this story as a winner.

It’s impossible to deny that Djokovic will have a cloud hanging over him throughout his time in Australia unless he opts to explain the medical reasons why he cannot have a vaccine, which seems highly unlikely given his eagerness to keep all such matter private.

Then we wait to see how the Australian public reacts to what many are certain to view as a superstar tennis player getting different treatment from the rest based on his celebrity status, with a storm of anger erupting on Twitter as soon as the medical exemption was confirmed.

While Australian Open chief Craig Tiley revealed this week that some unvaccinated players have been granted exemptions to play and that opened the door for Djokovic to travel, his profile and status means this special pass will be scrutinised more than any other.

His press conferences are certain to be dominated by questions about his vaccine status and some spectators may not support a player who has always been popular with the Australian tennis public and from a legacy perspective, Djokovic needs to tread carefully when he make public statements about this issue in the coming days and weeks.

Of course, he could end a lot of these questions by granting one interview explaining his position on vaccines and why he cannot have one, but the world No.1 is not the type to bow to pressure from anyone in order to quell a PR crisis. Instead, he will get his armour plate on and fight his detractors, as he has done throughout his career.

Djokovic has played a big role in ensuring his vaccine status has become a story that has gone well beyond tennis and his famously thick skin will now be tested like never before.