Djokovic leaves Australia but debate continues in vaccine saga
By FELICIA FONSECA
Australia have made their decision, but opinions remain divided around the world on Novak Djokovic and whether he should have been allowed to compete in the Australian Open despite not having been vaccinated against COVID-19.
At a tennis center in Phoenix on Sunday, employee Stan Taylor said the lobby was abuzz with a single question as the players arrived: “What do you think of Novak Djokovic?”
There was no consensus on whether the No.1 male player had tried to game the system by seeking an exemption from Australia’s strict vaccination rules or had the right to defend his title at the Open. Eventually, the country’s immigration minister revoked his visa for reasons of public interest, and Djokovic was expelled Sunday.
Taylor said he knows Djokovic favored unconventional approaches his whole life, but he wanted to see the tennis star show leadership in the polarizing debate over the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I love watching him fight,” said Taylor, who lives in Phoenix and has followed the saga closely. “I saw him snatch victory from the mouth of defeat. …. So he loves the game, but that thing wasn’t something to talk about. He picked the wrong fight and he lost.
Djokovic received an exemption from vaccination rules to play at the Australian Open, based on a previous coronavirus infection. But upon his arrival, border officials declared the exemption invalid and decided to deport him, sparking a 10-day legal battle and ongoing political drama.
Djokovic has crushing the support of his country of origin, Serbia, whose president said Australia had embarrassed itself and urged his compatriot to return to where he would be welcome.
The tennis player has also been touted as a hero by some in the anti-vaccine movement. A protester held up a poster in support of the tennis star at a rally in the Netherlands on Sunday.
Others were quick to criticize. One of Italy’s greatest tennis players, Adriano Panatta, has called Djokovic’s expulsion from Australia “the most natural end to this affair”.
“I don’t see how Australia could have granted the visa. He made big mistakes, he created an international business when he could have done without it,” Panatta told Italian news agency LaPresse.
French tennis player Alize Cornet, meanwhile, expressed sympathy while reserving judgement.
“I know too little to judge the situation,” she posted on Twitter. “What I know is that Novak is always the first to defend the players. But none of us defended him. Be strong.”
British player Andy Murray said he hoped such a situation would not happen again in the next tournament.
At this point, Djokovic could still play in the next Grand Slam tournament, the French Open in May-June – if the virus rules don’t change by then. Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu confirmed earlier this month that Djokovic would qualify for a “health bubble” which allows unvaccinated players to train and play.
The same could be true for Wimbledon. England has allowed exemptions from various coronavirus regulations for visiting athletes, if they stay in their accommodation when not competing or training. The US Tennis Association, which administers the US Open, said it will follow all rules set by federal, state and local governments regarding vaccination status.
An appearance by Djokovic at these tournaments would certainly attract those who want to see great players in action, said Dillon McNamara, who runs a tennis academy in Las Vegas.
“I’m not a fan of Novak Djokovic at all… but I would have really liked to see him play,” he said, saying the Australian Open could have put measures in place to ensure safety of the tournament beyond the ban on the unvaccinated.
There may be only one thing that everyone can agree on. As Murray said, “It hasn’t been good for anyone.”
Associated Press writer Joseph Wilson in Barcelona, Spain; Howard Fendrich in Washington; Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia; Rob Harris and Sylvia Hui in London; Jerome Pugmire in Paris; and Frances D’Emilio in Rome contributed to this story.