NO PLAY?

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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Composite image by Jack Brame

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