Opinion: Vaccine exemption for Australian Open will cement Novak Djokovic as tennis' top villain

Dan Wolken

After all the mystery he allowed to fester, the exhausting rhetorical games he played, now we know the truth. The world’s best tennis player really is No-Vaxx Djokovic after all. 

Why did Novak Djokovic spend the last few months avoiding a direct answer on whether he’d play this year’s Australian Open, a tournament he’s won nine times among his record-tying 20 Grand Slam titles? Because, it turns out, he was seeking a medical exemption from the vaccination requirement to enter the Australian state of Victoria.

And on Tuesday, he got it, announcing via Instagram that he was headed Down Under.

“Any player who is granted a medical exemption will have gone through a two-stage, independent process to verify they have a medical condition that meets the criteria for an exemption,” a spokesperson for the state government told the Herald Sun in Melbourne. 

At this point, it’s not a big surprise Djokovic remains one of just five unvaccinated players in the top 100 of the men’s tennis rankings, a number that was revealed recently by a spokesperson for the ATP Tour. Djokovic has been openly skeptical of vaccines and against vaccine mandates, was never willing to say publicly that he would take it and has had an interest in holistic medicine to the point of promoting obvious junk science. 

Novak Djokovic has won the Australian Open nine times.

So when this is what it took for the No. 1 player in the world to get to the first Grand Slam of the year with a chance to pass Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for the all-time lead, there will naturally be skepticism about the legitimacy of any medical exemption. Top doubles player Jamie Murray already went there, telling the Daily Mirror: “I think if it was me that wasn’t vaccinated, I wouldn’t be getting an exemption.”

There’s also likely to be a significant backlash in Melbourne, which dealt with arguably the most draconian anti-COVID measures of any city in the world including 260-plus days in lockdown during the pandemic. In Victoria, more than 90 percent of residents are now fully vaccinated. They will almost certainly not take kindly to a famous anti-vaxxer waltzing into their town, taking advantage of an exemption while they’ve spent the last couple years following the rules. 

Djokovic has always been the most divisive player among tennis’ Big Three, for some reasons of his own making but mostly because he arrived third behind Federer and Nadal when they had already established their fan bases. With what he’s accomplished in the game and the almost certain inevitability that he will end his career with the most Grand Slam titles, Djokovic had started to turn the villain narrative around over the last year. 

TENNIS: Djokovic given medical exemption to play at Australian Open

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His yearning to be loved and appreciated by tennis fans was obvious at last year’s U.S. Open, when he finally won over the crowds in New York during his quest to complete the calendar year Grand Slam and saw the emotions pour out of him during and after his loss to Daniil Medvedev in the final. But with this exemption, Djokovic has almost certainly taken a blowtorch to all that goodwill.

Hopefully Djokovic will talk openly about the grounds on which he applied for the medical exemption because, at least on the surface, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. According to the guidance from the Australian government, it’s possible Djokovic had COVID-19 within the past six months, which would be one way around the requirement. It would be fairly surprising if Djokovic, one of the world’s best athletes, was suffering from one of the major medical conditions like “inflammatory cardiac illness, acute rheumatic fever, acute rheumatic heart disease or acute decompensated heart failure that are listed as an excuse not to get the vaccine. 

What this entire episode suggests, though, is that Djokovic just doesn’t plan to get the vaccine at all. And that doesn’t seem sustainable over the long haul in a sport that travels the globe and has its biggest tournaments in countries that are likely to have some type of vaccine mandate to enter going forward.

Is Djokovic really planning to hop around from Grand Slam to Grand Slam hoping to be granted exemptions, be subjected to quarantines and deal with endless red bureaucratic red tape in various countries? At a time when the world is dealing with yet another wave of infections, it’s a horrible look for any country to roll out the red carpet for an unvaccinated traveler because he happens to be a great tennis player.

Forget what Djokovic believes about science or his body and the fundamental selfishness of refusing the vaccine. Doing it this way just seems like an awful lot of unnecessary stress and work. 

And yet, the implications of all these decisions are massive in terms of what tennis looks like over the next couple years. At every Grand Slam tournament Djokovic enters, there’s a chance for the record book to be re-written. If he's not there to either win or be beaten like he was at the U.S. Open, the accomplishment might seem less relevant.

But at least now we know the deal. Djokovic isn’t vaccinated, and it doesn't seem like he’s going to be. It’s an exhausting topic, to be sure. But the way it’s going to frame a potential history-making 2022 season is his own fault.