Tension between Australia and Djokovic, a reflection of the dangers at hand and the difficulties of world sport today

Djokovic’s relationship with covid-19 and vaccines has been stormy. Srdjan, his father, defends his son’s “exclusive and personal right” to be vaccinated or not.

Tennis - ATP Masters 1000 - Paris Masters - Accor Arena, Paris, France - November 6, 2021 Serbia's Novak Djokovic in action during his semi-final match against Poland's Hubert Hurkacz REUTERS/Christian Hartmann/File Photo     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY SEARCH "POY SPORTS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2021 PACKAGES
Tennis - ATP Masters 1000 - Paris Masters - Accor Arena, Paris, France - November 6, 2021 Serbia's Novak Djokovic in action during his semi-final match against Poland's Hubert Hurkacz REUTERS/Christian Hartmann/File Photo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY SEARCH "POY SPORTS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2021 PACKAGES

Novak Djokovic’s father speaks of “blackmail”, the Minister of Sport of the Australian State of Victoria denies it and the head of the Australian Open tennis tournament leaves a sentence with a lot of content: if the world number one plays next month in Melbourne, it will be because he is vaccinated.

The first Grand Slam of the year is a good synthesis of all the tensions that have been building up in the world and of the inevitable clashes in the crisis caused by the covid-19 pandemic, which is now approaching its second anniversary.

There is a government appealing to the strictest measures to ensure that the situation does not get out of control: this is the case of the Victorian government.

There is a major sporting event that seeks to get ahead no matter what it costs. And it costs a lot: for its protagonists, for the spectators, for the journalists who try to cover it. This is the case of the Australian Open.

And there are antivaccine, of course. This is the case of Novak Djokovic, who since 2020 has been explaining why he does not believe in them and still does not clarify whether he was vaccinated or not.

Presumably, he did not. He is not alone: a high percentage of players on the ATP and WTA circuits resisted vaccination during 2021. And no vaccine means no Australian Open.

“We would love to see Novak here. He knows that he’ll have to be vaccinated to play here,” Australian Open tournament chief Craig Tiley said.

Tennis - Australian Open - Men's Singles Photo Shoot - Brighton Beach, Melbourne, Australia, February 22, 2021  Craig Tiley, CEO of Tennis Australia talks to the media during a photo shoot at Brighton Beach REUTERS/Loren Elliott
Tennis - Australian Open - Men's Singles Photo Shoot - Brighton Beach, Melbourne, Australia, February 22, 2021 Craig Tiley, CEO of Tennis Australia talks to the media during a photo shoot at Brighton Beach REUTERS/Loren Elliott

And as a backdrop, omicron, the new covid-19 variant that is beginning to cause concern around the world and could turn the Australian Open into a fortress. The original plan was for the tournament to symbolize the gradual reopening of the State of Victoria after long and very severe restrictions.

On a positive note, the fact that Australia imposed the vaccine as a condition of playing the tournament is changing the players’ attitudes, Tiley said.

“It was interesting six weeks ago only 50 per cent of the global playing group - because each of them are independent contractors, they don’t have a union that dictates what they can do.

“Today more than 85 per cent are. We take a lot of credit for that because we put a vaccination requirement on it. We think by the time we get to January it will be between 95 per cent and 100 per cent vaccinated because if you’re not, you cannot play.

“There are one or two players that obviously have medical conditions - as there are in the community. There is a medical condition exemption, but it’s a very high bar to get across”.

In this context, Djokovic’s father Srdjan’s talk of “blackmail” probably generates less sympathy among the players than a few months ago.

“Of course he would want to go with all his heart,” Djokovic’s father Srdjan told Serbian channel Prda TV.

“But I really don’t know if that will happen. Probably not under these conditions, with this blackmail and when it’s done that way.”

Srdjan Djokovic also defended his son’s “exclusive and personal right” to be vaccinated or not, and claimed that even he did not know if Novak had received the jab.

And what does Djokovic say? His answer is that he views this “as a private matter” for himself.

Tennis - Davis Cup Finals - Group F - Serbia v Germany - Olympiahalle, Innsbruck, Austria - November 27, 2021  Serbia's Novak Djokovic in action during his match against Germany's Jan-Lennard Struff REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
Tennis - Davis Cup Finals - Group F - Serbia v Germany - Olympiahalle, Innsbruck, Austria - November 27, 2021 Serbia's Novak Djokovic in action during his match against Germany's Jan-Lennard Struff REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Djokovic’s relationship with covid-19 and vaccines has been stormy. In the European summer of 2020 he organized a series of exhibitions under the name “Adria Tour” that ended with contagions among the protagonists and the world number one himself.

After a 2021 in which he was just one win away from conquering the Grand Slam -winning the four major tournaments in the same season-, opening 2022 missing Australia leaves him without the possibility of fighting for that goal again. And 2023, it is known, is still a long way off.

That Novak Djokovic, one of the most successful and recognized athletes on the planet, has been holding up the profile of an antivaccine for two years is not the best thing for tennis. Nor is it for Dave Haggerty, president of the International Tennis Federation (ITF) and member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

But no one can convince Djokovic. Or maybe yes, maybe Australia and his ambition to overcome the tie he has with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, of 20 Grand Slam titles each, will decide him to get vaccinated. Or to announce that he has already done so. Stranger things have been done throughout history to reach sporting glory.

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