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Djokovic ends the will-he, won’t he speculation – but the story is not over yet


History could be made at the end of the month, as World No. 1 Novak Djokovic goes for a record 10th Australian Open title, which could also put him clear of his rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at 21 Grand Slam titles. But at what cost?

How did we get here?

Djokovic is undoubtedly one of the best tennis players to grace the planet. Rod Laver Arena has become his personal stomping ground. So, when the government authorities mandated that anyone involved with the Australian Open had to be vaccinated (unless of course they satisfied stringent exception reviews), all eyes were on Djokovic, who we last saw sobbing into his towel after being comprehensively beaten at the US Open.

He tearfully thanked a crowd that showed him love and adulation, some may argue he has always wanted from the watching public, after Daniil Medvedev finally got over the line for his first Slam title.

As yet another variant of Covid-19 sweeps the world, the news of Djokovic’s impending arrival swirled up another wave of frustration and anger from Melbournians who have arguably been some of the worst affected by restrictions in the past two years.

Happy New Year! Wishing you all health, love & joy in every moment & may you feel love & respect towards all beings on this wonderful planet.

I’ve spent fantastic quality time with loved ones over break & today I’m heading Down Under with an exemption permission. Let’s go 2022! pic.twitter.com/e688iSO2d4

— Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) January 4, 2022

Why is this such a big deal?

Last year, Tennis Australia moved heaven and earth to get the event on, running qualifying events in the Middle East and then charting flights to bring everyone over. Despite best efforts, cases of Covid saw some players in quarantine and having to improvise training using beds and equipment provided to their rooms. And let’s not forget Yulia Putintseva’s mouse!

Been trying to change the room for a 2 hours already ! And no one came to help due to quarantine situation????? pic.twitter.com/LAowgWqw58

— Yulia Putintseva (@PutintsevaYulia) January 16, 2021

Players in Melbourne were coming into quite a bit of flack for their venting their frustrations, given the restrictions placed on residents, and also Aussies stranded abroad, unable to return home because of the lockdown.

But even before then, as sport started to make a return in the summer of 2020, Djokovic came under fire for organising the Adria Tour which ended up becoming a super-spreader event with several players, including Djokovic and his wife, testing positive for Covid-19.

Djokovic has long since been resistance to any kind of medical procedures – he delayed having elbow surgery for as long as he could and has been very vocal in his beliefs that being vaccinated is a personal choice.

So what are the terms of the “exemption permission”? The case, redacted of all personal details such as name, will have had to convince the medical panel of the following:

  • Inflammatory cardiac illness in the last three months
  • Undergoing major surgery or hospital admission for a serious illness
  • A Covid-19 diagnosis that means vaccination cannot be made for six months
  • Any serious effect to a Covid-19 vaccination in the past
  • The vaccination is a risk to themselves or others during the process
  • Underlying developmental or mental health disorders.

So now the question is – exactly what condition does the supremely fit World No. 1 have that could prevent him from being vaccinated, outside of personal choice?

What can Djokovic expect Down Under?

Last year Melbournians and indeed tennis fans in the area felt uneasy and expressed their frustration at the complaints of players stuck in hotel quarantine for what they saw as moaning while many members of the public had experienced extreme hardships – loss of jobs, and bereavements with no way of mourning their lost loved ones.

After continuous rounds of lockdowns, Omicron is causing another surge of cases, and the reaction has been predictable – between the adulation of fans who want to see him surpass Federer and Nadal, and those who feel the rules should be for everyone.

All eyes will be on his first match and many voices too, no doubt. Always assuming that the Australian Border Force let him in, regardless of the medical exemption!

Djokovic is scheduled to land at Melbourne Tullamarine airport in the coming hours... https://t.co/37MPxBfoCl

— Stuart Fraser (@stu_fraser) January 5, 2022

Novak Djokovic is about to find out what it’s like to be despised by all of Australia. We’re all nice and laid back until we’re not. #GetVaccinated

— Karen Sweeney (@karenlsweeney) January 4, 2022

Jamie Murray, on Novak Djokovic getting an exemption to play @AustralianOpen. "I think if it was me that wasn't vaccinated I wouldn't be getting an exemption...but well done to him for getting clear to come to Australia and compete. 1/2

— Simon Cambers (@scambers73) January 4, 2022

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The news of Djokovic’s exemption puts him as a favorite now over Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev. Interestingly Nadal remains an outside choice at best, even though he too has a chance to win a 21st Grand Slam title.