Novak Djokovic is being hounded for receiving a medical exemption but any anger leveled at him is being sent in the wrong direction.
Almost instantaneously, Novak Djokovic has found himself in the notorious company of the likes of Ned Kelly and Mark ‘Chopper’ Read as public enemy number one in Australia.
Djokovic’s crime? Uploading a photo on Tuesday from an airport with bags in tow, revealing that he was “heading Down Under with an exemption permission” to defend his crown at the Australian Open in Melbourne.
Their knives already sharpened, Aussies have proceeded to slash viciously at Djokovic with all manner of insults and threats.
It’s clear that when Djokovic does land on Aussie soil, he won’t be greeted with a friendly local ‘g’day’.
Indeed, PM Scott Morrison has vowed that their Serbian guest could yet be sent packing on the first plane home, should the authorities not be satisfied with his circumstances for receiving a Covid vaccine exemption.
But amid all the vitriol being volleyed at Djokovic – and there is an awful lot of it – perhaps those infuriated with his impending presence in Australia should vent their fury elsewhere, not least towards those who gave the green light for the 34-year-old’s arrival in the first place.
For all Victoria State Premier Daniel Andrews’ barking for unvaccinated players to be banned from the Melbourne spectacle, Tennis Australia made concessions by setting up two independent panels to review applications for exemptions.
This was done anonymously, meaning there should, in theory, be no accusations of star treatment either.
“Novak isn’t coming to play the Australian Open [with an exemption] because he’s the biggest tennis star of them all,” Victorian government minister Jaala Pulford said.
“He’s coming because he has been able to demonstrate through this process that he has an eligibility under the rules that apply to everybody else in the country.”
The exemptions, for which 26 players applied but only a handful were granted, were done in accordance with guidelines from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, with motives including an acute major medical condition such as undergoing a major surgery, or evidence of a PCR-confirmed Covid-19 infection in the previous six months.
That latter reason could apply to Djokovic, who we know contracted Covid in June 2020 amid the fallout from his ill-fated Adria Tour, but we are unsure if he has caught it again since.
In any event, the rules clearly state that Djokovic has the right to keep his medical information to himself – just like he didn’t have to reveal that he had received an exemption in the first place.
It should hardly come as a surprise that Djokovic had sought an exemption. While he has not divulged his vaccine status, it’s easy enough to garner an understanding of his stance on the issue.
In comments last April in a Facebook chat with compatriot players, Djokovic said: “Personally, I am opposed to vaccination, and I wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel.”
He has also routinely championed personal freedoms on the topic, remarking just a couple of months ago: “It 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.”
Almost two years into the pandemic, we are constantly told to “follow the science” and “trust the scientists”.
This is exactly what Tennis Australia seem to have done in this particular case, placing their faith in two separate medical panels to decide whether Djokovic should be allowed to compete.
The counter-arguments to his exemption, of course, are that Djokovic is setting a bad example to the public by suggesting that people don’t need to be vaccinated, not least by appearing in a country which has faced some of the most stringent pandemic restrictions anywhere in the world.
But if he has satisfied those requirements – in a procedure that required him to go “above and beyond” what normal visitors Down Under need to, according to Australian Open chief executive Craig Tiley – then it should be ‘case closed’ and let’s get on with the tennis.
Djokovic, though, has always been an easy target for the hate mob, unapologetic in his beliefs (many of which diverge from the norm) and not a sweetheart like squeaky-clean generational rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
Following Tuesday’s bombshell, we’ve seen widespread calls from Australians for their countrymen to boo Djokovic throughout the tournament, but that seems unlikely to faze him and wouldn’t be the first time either. Djokovic is used to it; if anything, it might even have the opposite effect and spur him on.
As Melbourne daily newspaper The Age pointed out, as the most successful player of all time at the Australian Open, Djokovic deserves respect even if you disagree with his views. The tournament will be enriched and far more competitive for having him there.
Winning the trophy a record nine times from 2008 to 2021, Djokovic has helped make it the spectacle that it is, providing some of the most memorable moments that tennis history has to offer.
His opportunity to become the most successful male player of all time ahead of Federer and Nadal by claiming 21 Grand Slams overall should not be denied due to personal preference if he has satisfied the necessary medical panels and adhered to the rules.
After all, Novak Djokovic isn’t the one who made them.
By Tom Sanderson
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.