This world-famous athlete's GOAT status could hinge on something off the court

Djokovic refuses to say if he’s been vaccinated. Photo via: Wiki Commons.

I know it’s only tennis, but there’s an event coming up nearly 10,000 miles away that is serious about Covid health and safety protocols and perhaps will show the world’s sporting stage how it’s done.

The Australian Open, one of tennis’ premiere Grand Slam tournaments, has laid down the law: if you want to play or attend as a fan, you must be fully vaccinated with a government-approved vaccine. If you’re thinking of traveling to Australia to watch the tournament, you better be able to prove that you’re fully vaccinated or you won’t make it to baggage claim.

The Australian Open will be held January 17-30 in Melbourne, with several lead-up events in other Aussie cities.

Australian Open rules will be the same for fans buying the cheapest ticket to roam the outside courts to concession workers selling shrimp on the barbie to referees to lockerroom janitors to the No. 1 tennis player in the world, who’s possibly the GOAT, on the verge of setting the all-time record for most Grand Slam titles.

That’s Novak Djokovic, who owns 20 Grand Slam trophies, tied with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Many believe that the Australian Open is Djokovic’s best chance to break the logjam on top. He’s won the Australian Open nine times already.

Djokovic, 34, refuses to say if he’s been vaccinated and has made several anti-vax statements in the past. Last year, with tennis tournaments canceled worldwide, Djokovic organized his own unsanctioned series of events called the Adria Tour in Serbia and Croatia. Fans were not required to wear masks or social distance, players hugged and high-fived and danced in conga lines in night clubs without wearing masks. Not surprisingly, Djokovic’s tour turned into super-spreader events and several players and coaches, including Djokovic, his coach Goran Ivanisevic, even Djokovic’s wife, came down with Covid.

Djokovic’s later commented: “I don’t think I’ve done anything bad, to be honest. If I had the chance to do the Adria Tour again, I would do it again.”

Adding: “Personally I am opposed to vaccination, and I wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to travel.”

Dubbed “No-vax Djokovic” by some fans, the best tennis player in the world has yet to say if he intends to play the Australian Open. His name is on a preliminary list of participants that includes all players who are eligible to play provided they show proof of full vaccination.

Tennis perhaps is the most international of sports. Players ranked in the Top 20 represent 15 different countries. The Top 100 has players from 32 different countries. Maybe the Australian Open’s vaccination policy will become the world standard for all professional sports.

Djokovic’s father has said he doubts his son will bend to the Australian Open’s vaccination rule, calling the policy “blackmail.”

If Djokovic is playing a game of chicken, betting the Australian Open will sneak him into the tournament via a wink-wink medical exemption, he’s underestimating the tournament’s (and Australia’s) resolve.

Any request for a medical exemption will be reviewed by an independent panel of medical specialists. No loopholes. Requests will be reviewed anonymously and should Djokovic apply for an exemption it will be treated like anybody else’s.

Australian Deputy Premier James Merlino: “My view is clear and simple. Everyone who will attend – spectators, players, officials, staff – everyone is expected to be fully vaccinated.”

Is the Australian Open policy having an effect on the sport?

Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley: “To be clear up front, no one can play the Australian Open unless they are vaccinated. Six weeks ago only 50 percent of the tennis playing group globally were vaccinated and now it’s more than 95 percent.”

Australia has a vaccination rate near 80 percent. The United States is struggling to hit 60 percent. Would similar regulations by U.S. leagues move the needle here?

The Australian Open will not have one set of rules for vaccinated players and another set for unvaccinated like the NFL does in the U.S. Nobody will get away with a fake vaccination card. Nobody, regardless of star power, will lie about being “immunized,” risk the health of teammates and receive a slap on the wrist. Unlike the NFL and other pro leagues there won’t be different rules depending on local laws in Australia.

All of Australia has one rule: “no vaccination means no play.”

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The Houston Texans have just a couple of practices before their preseason debut. Here are 11 observations from Tuesday’s workout.

1.The offense stunk on Tuesday. It was inconsistent and resembled more of last year’s disappointing performances than any other practices in this training camp.

2. Davis Mills and his receivers had a few miscommunications on Tuesday. Mills sailed a pass to nobody when he and Brandin Cooks weren’t on the same page. There were some other throws to nowhere in the day. It was something that hadn’t been present at all in training camp to this point.

3. There were a few “good coverage” notes on Tuesday. Not to say there was one specific player, but a handful of team-level efforts that led to the note.

4. It wasn’t all wrong from the offense. After a pass to nowhere Davis Mills and the offense bounced back. It was a second down during a team drill and Mills fired a pass to Chris Moore for six yards. Rex Burkhead would pick up a first down on a rush a play later. A non-positive play last year on first down doomed this team. That hopefully won’t be the case for this year’s team.

5. Chad Beebe is going into his fifth season in the NFL, his first with the Texans. The former Vikings pass catcher has flashed a few times in training camp. He has an uphill battle being new to the team but is trying to make himself a factor.

6. Phillip Dorsett had a big catch over the middle. Davis Mills stood back and delivered as the offensive line held up and Dorsett reeled it in for a huge gain. No defenders were around him. It is between Dorsett and Chris Moore for the chance to be the slot wideout opening day. With Dorsett’s return to practice, it is becoming a fun camp battle.

7.Speaking of returns to practice, Tytus Howard was back. Howard has his reps managed and after practice, offensive line coach George Warhop Howard was “getting his wind” back. When Howard was having his reps managed rookie tackle Austin Deculus played at right tackle. Deculus looks much more consistent than minicamp and OTAs.

8. Kenyon Green is still out with an injury. It is getting to a critical time where the time missed might prevent the first-rounder from starting week one. Max Scharping hasn’t looked bad in his chances with the first team. Offensive line coach George Warhop said they believe in Green and his ability and he has been in meetings to stay up to date.

9. Ka’imi Fairbairn was perfect in one of the special team periods. He drilled all five kicks, each further than the last, and was crushing the football.

10. Derek Stingley was very sticky in some early reps on Nico Collins. The third overall pick is so smooth when he is working. Later his coverage forced a throw from the offense that had no chance of being completed.

11. The play of the day was made by Derek Stingley. The offense was about five or six yards out of the end zone needing a touchdown to win. With six seconds left on the clock, any completed pass that wasn’t a touchdown was game over. Davis Mills dropped back a step and fired to Nico Collins who Stingley covered. The rookie kept the second-year player out of the end zone to earn the defense a win. This was one of the better Stingley days and he did a lot of work. At one point, it looked as though he and Rex Burkhead had some words and almost led to an offense and defense scuffle, but it stayed to just some shouting. The rookie shined today.

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