“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this event has been canceled.”
“This facility requires proof of vaccination for entry.”
These statements have become all too familiar over the past two years. School, in-person working spaces, and social gatherings have all changed drastically. However, one of the industries that has been the most heavily disrupted by COVID-19 regulations has been professional sports, and, in particular, professional tennis.
Professional tennis functions on a tour system, with the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) and WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) Tours traveling across six continents over the course of the year. The almost weekly international travel is extremely challenging in the context of the pandemic because each country has its own rules and restrictions. Both tours have worked to create consistent and safe travel, although some countries require players to quarantine upon arrival and remain inside a “bubble” while in the host country.
Djokovic, who plays under the Serbian flag, is the current World Number 1 and a 20-time Grand Slam champion.
Australia took extra precautions before hosting the Australian Open, one of the four biggest tennis tournaments of the year, from January 17-30, 2022. Vaccinations were mandatory for all players and spectators at the event. Craig Tiley, CEO of Tennis Australia, told the Australian Associated Press, “If any player, fan [or] workforce is on site here—you’re either vaccinated or you have a medical exemption that’s approved and you’re on the Australian Immunization Register…That provides us with safety and an extra level of comfort on site.”
Tiley announced in November 2021, and many unvaccinated players rushed to get vaccines in the following weeks in time to play in one of their most prestigious tournaments. One player whose vaccine status was unknown became a topic of conversation throughout tennis circles: Novak Djokovic. Djokovic, who plays under the Serbian flag, is the current World Number 1 and a 20-time Grand Slam champion. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest tennis players of all time. Djokovic had previously refused to share his vaccination status but had voiced his general opposition to vaccination. In May 2021, he said that he’s “always believed in freedom of choice.” He was hoping to win a record-breaking twenty-first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, a feat which he came one win short of at the 2021 US Open against Russian World Number 2 Daniil Medvedev.
Djokovic did indeed test positive for the virus on December 16, 2021, and tested negative on December 22, 2021.
Djokovic traveled to Australia on January 4, 2022, breaking his silence about his vaccination status with a post on his Instagram account. He said, “I’ve spent fantastic quality time with my loved ones over the break [from the tennis season] and today I’m heading Down Under with an exemption permission.” The exemption to which Djokovic refers was granted to him by a panel of medical experts and approved by the Australian state of Victoria. His exemption was granted on grounds of recent COVID-19 infection and recovery. Djokovic did indeed test positive for the virus on December 16, 2021, and tested negative on December 22, 2021.
With his medical exemption confirmed by Tennis Australia and Victorian officials, Djokovic landed in Melbourne on January 5, 2022. Upon arrival, his travel visa was canceled, and he was detained by Australia’s Border Force, the country’s equivalent to America’s TSA. This prompted Serbia’s president, Aleksander Vucic, to make a statement on the evolving situation. “[The whole of Serbia] is doing everything to see that the harassment of the world’s best tennis player is brought to an end immediately,” Vucic said.
However, the drama had only just begun. On January 10, 2022, an Australian judge overturned the Border Force’s visa cancellation and Djokovic was released. “I am pleased and grateful that the judge overturned my vias cancellation. Despite all that has happened in the past week, I want to stay and to try to compete at the Australian Open. I remain focused on that,” Djokovic wrote on Instagram beneath a picture of him and his coaches on Melbourne Park’s Rod Laver Arena.
Many fans believed that with the court’s ruling, Djokovic would be allowed to compete at the Australian Open. 21-time Grand Slam champion and eventual 2022 Australian Open champion Rafael Nadal said in a press conference prior to the tournament, “They have said he has the right to play in the Australian Open, and I really believe that is the fairest thing if the issue has been resolved, which seems to be the case.”
Some players offered neutral statements or statements encouraging vaccination, but many quickly became disgruntled by the questions.
Soon after, Djokovic apologized for any miscommunication and misinformation on his behalf and took responsibility for the situation. On January 13, 2022, he was included in the official Australian Open draw, seeded first, and scheduled to play on January 17. The issues seemed to be resolved.
Just one day after the draw was released, Australian Immigration Alex Hawke used his “discretionary power” to cancel Djokovic’s visa a second time, citing a potential risk to the country, and Djokovic was officially deported from Australia. Although Djokovic attempted to take this decision into the court, his challenge failed. He was removed from the tournament and replaced by “lucky loser” Salvatore Caruso, who had lost in the qualifying tournament prior to the event.
Reporters asked many of the world’s other top players about Djokovic’s situation during press conferences, casting a shadow over the upcoming Australian Open. Some players offered neutral statements or statements encouraging vaccination, but many quickly became disgruntled by the questions. When asked about Djokovic’s situation, two-time Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka said in an Australian Open press conference, “Is my opinion going to help anything? I’ll pass on that. Thanks though.”
Despite the players’ wishes, the focus of the tennis world leading up to the Australian Open was on Djokovic.
Djokovic will be forced to decide where his priorities lie in the coming months if he wishes to remain on tour and maintain his World Number 1 spot, which he has held since November 2018.
Djokovic, the heavy favorite to win the tournament and break the record he had then shared with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for most Grand Slam titles, is now technically banned from Australia for three years. Former World Number-1 and three-time Grand Slam singles champion Lindsay Davenport called the saga “sickening to watch.” Meanwhile, 18-time Grand Slam champion Martina Navratilova said that the entire situation was “started all by Novak” and could’ve been avoided if he’d gotten vaccinated.
The 2022 season remains uncertain for Djokovic. The next Grand Slam tournament, the French Open, will take place this May. French law has recently changed to stipulate that in order to enter the country without a vaccine, one must have tested positive for COVID-19 up to four months in advance—a window that does not include Djokovic’s positive test in December 2021. Djokovic will be forced to decide where his priorities lie in the coming months if he wishes to remain on tour and maintain his World Number 1 spot, which he has held since November 2018.
Novak Djokovic’s situation is a public example of the choice many face if their workplace mandates a vaccine. Although Djokovic’s career earnings hardly make him comparable to average workers, his inability to do his job—play tournaments on the ATP tour—has certainly called attention to the unintended consequences of workplace vaccine mandates.