TC Live: Novak headed Down Under

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The statement from Tennis Australia landed with a dull and unsurprising thud on Tuesday.

“Novak Djokovic will compete at the Australian Open and is on his way to Australia,” it read. “Djokovic applied for a medical exemption which was granted following a rigorous review process involving two separate independent panels of medical experts.”

The word that stands out in those bland sentences is “rigorous.” You don’t use that adjective as a way to describe your review process unless you know there’s going to be widespread skepticism about your decision to allow a celebrity who is probably not vaccinated to enter your country and play your tournament. Djokovic has refused to reveal his vaccination status for the better part of a year, but his application for an exemption “strongly suggests,” as the New York Times put it today, that he hasn’t had his requisite jabs.

If one mystery surrounding Djokovic was potentially cleared up today, another was created. What medical condition is keeping Djokovic from getting vaccinated? There are a limited number allowed by Australian authorities:

—Inflammatory cardiac illness in the last three months

—Undergoing major surgery or hospital admission for a serious illness

—A COVID-19 diagnosis that means vaccination cannot be made for six month

—Any serious effect to a COVID-19 vaccine in the past

—If the vaccine is a risk to themselves or others during the vaccination process

—Underlying developmental or mental health disorders

Without any more information, we can only hope and trust that Djokovic and the medical panels operated in good faith, and that he has a legitimate issue that falls into one of these categories. Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley says that Djokovic isn’t the only player to receive an exemption, and that the reviews are “blind”— the doctors don’t know whose applications they’re evaluating. Djokovic, as we know, has had allergy and breathing problems in the past.

But skepticism about the process is inevitable, especially in a country that has been so strict about its COVID-19 lockdowns and protocols for ordinary citizens. Djokovic, who will be trying to set the men’s Grand Slam title record Down Under, is a valuable commodity for a tournament that is already missing Roger Federer and Serena Williams. And until now, his public objections to the vaccine have been more philosophical than specifically medical.

As early as April 2020, two months into the pandemic, Djokovic said he “wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel.”

Last November in Turin, he elaborated on his philosophy: “The freedom of choice is essential for everyone, whether it’s me or somebody else,” Djokovic said. “Doesn’t really matter whether it’s vaccination or anything else in life. You should have the freedom to choose, to decide what you want to do. In this particular case, what you want to put in your body.”

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Djokovic has triumphed on eight of his past 11 trips to the Australian Open.

Djokovic has triumphed on eight of his past 11 trips to the Australian Open.

Djokovic’s resistance to medical interventions is long-standing, and goes beyond vaccine jabs. In 2017, he put off elbow surgery for as long as he could; when he finally had it, he told the Telegraph, he woke up and cried. “Every time I thought about what I did, I felt like I had failed myself,” he said.

Maybe that experience hardened Djokovic’s resistance to caving in and getting the shot. But there’s a big difference between the two procedures. Getting vaccinated is, as Djokovic says, a personal decision, but it’s more than that; it affects everyone around you. If you decide not to get it, you make it more likely that you’ll catch the virus and pass it on to others. Yes, it’s possible to get COVID-19 even if you’re vaccinated, but it’s much less likely that you’ll end up in a hospital bed, stressing the world’s already over-stressed medical facilities. He surely understands the risks of spread from his experience with the Adria Tour last spring.

After half a year of speculation, Djokovic will have a chance to play his Slam and go for his record. All eyes will be on his matches Down Under. But will it come at a cost? Will his example lead to more claims for vaccine exemptions from people in other walks of life? Now that he’s cited a medical condition, can he still cast his decision not to be vaccinated as a stand for personal choice? How will the fans in Australia react to him? Will he be exposed if there’s an outbreak in Melbourne, and will his presence make one more likely? Djokovic has been exempted, but his stance hasn’t been vindicated.