The news that Novak Djokovic had received a medical exemption to play in the Australian Open tournament this month in Melbourne spurred a range of reactions in Australia, where some politicians and tennis officials called on him to explain himself.
Djokovic, the world’s No. 1 male tennis player and a prominent vaccination skeptic, announced on social media on Tuesday that he was “heading Down Under with an exemption permission.”
The tournament’s organizers confirmed that he had been granted a medical exemption after a review process by two independent panels, a procedure that suggested he remained unvaccinated.
Reaction among the pro tennis elite was somewhat measured. After Alex de Minaur and James Duckworth, who are both from Australia, absorbed the news, Duckworth said at a news briefing at the ATP Cup in Sydney, “If he’s fit the criteria, then, yeah, he should be able to come.”
“That’s very politically correct of you,” de Minaur replied with a laugh. He added, “I just think it’s just very interesting; that’s all I’m going to say.”
Other Australians used social media to express their anger at the decision. The hashtag #DjokovicOut trended on Twitter on Wednesday. Commentators pointed out that spectators at the Australian Open must be vaccinated.
Stephen Parnis, a former vice president of the Australian Medical Association, tweeted: “I don’t care how good a tennis player he is. If he’s refusing to get vaccinated, he shouldn’t be allowed in. If this exemption is true, it sends an appalling message to millions seeking to reduce #COVID19Aus risk to themselves & others. #Vaccination shows respect, Novak.”
Another Twitter user called it “a slap in the face of millions of Australians.”
Jamie Murray of Britain said on Tuesday after his ATP Cup doubles match: “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.”
Djokovic has long held nontraditional views of science and medicine — he once asserted that prayer and belief could purify toxic water — and he has had a complicated relationship with the pandemic. He has also said that vaccination is a private and personal decision that should not be mandated. When the Australian Open announced that vaccines would be required to gain entry into the country, Djokovic’s father referred to the mandate as “blackmail.”
Jacinta Allan, acting premier of Victoria state, where the Australian Open will be held, called on Djokovic to explain his reasons for attending the tournament.
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“It’s the government’s expectation that when he does arrive, he explains to the Victorian community what’s the circumstances, and can then explain some of these motives behind his actions and his intentions in playing here in Australia,” she said on Wednesday at a news conference.
Craig Tiley, the chief of Tennis Australia, which hosts the tournament, acknowledged that some people “will be upset about the fact that Novak has come in because of his statements of the past couple of years around vaccination,” but he said that Djokovic had not been given any special favors.
The answered to whether the tennis player could even enter the country for the tournament came with a resounding “no” on Thursday. After a 10-hour standoff with government officials at a Melbourne airport, where he was held in a room overnight, Djokovic was told he had to leave the country. The issue appeared to turn on questions about the evidence supporting a medical exemption from a coronavirus vaccine.
The federal government says that if international travelers cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, they “will need to provide proof” to airline staff.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia echoed that at a news conference on Wednesday, saying that if Djokovic arrived in Australia, he would have to provide “acceptable proof that he cannot be vaccinated.”
“If that evidence is insufficient,” Morrison said, “he won’t be treated different to anyone else and he’ll be on the next plane home.”