Novak Djokovic has been a lightning rod for discussion throughout the pandemic given his brilliance on the court and his role as a fledgling union leader for tennis players off it. It has proven the case again this week after the 20-time major winner refused to outline his vaccination status in an interview with Serbian website Blic when asked about next January’s Australian Open.
The declaration by federal government ministers Greg Hunt and Alex Hawke on Wednesday that unvaccinated travellers will be prevented entry into the country has raised the stakes for Djokovic.
Will this development preclude the nine-time Australian Open champion from playing in Melbourne next year? What impact would the absence of his star power have on the tournament? And more broadly, what effect will this edict have on the first major of 2022 given it is estimated between half to one-third of the world’s top 100 players on both tours are not yet vaccinated?
As with everything during the pandemic, this remains a fluid situation and much can change by the time entries are due for the major in early December. Australian Open officials have been locked into nightly online phone calls with the ATP and WTA Tours, and the world’s best players, for several weeks outlining possible scenarios.
This included the prospect that unvaccinated players would be subjected to serving a strict fortnight of hotel quarantine, amid other restrictions, before competing next summer. The federal government may now have removed this option, though discussions between TA and health and government authorities are continuing, just as they are with the tours.
“Over the last few months we have been working productively with all the relevant authorities on the conditions that will be in place for fans, players and our staff in January,” TA said in a statement on Wednesday. “Our understanding is that the details around international visitors entering the country are yet to be decided and we hope to have more information soon.”
The Nine Network, which is the host broadcaster of the Australian summer of tennis, declined to comment on the prospect of an Open potentially devoid of a couple of stars.
Despite Wednesday’s development, it is premature to suggest the reign of Djokovic is over without the king of Melbourne Park striking a serve. The same holds true for any other player who is currently unvaccinated. Former Australian tour players and leading coaches Paul McNamee and Roger Rasheed are among those who are confident Djokovic will be in Melbourne to defend his crown.
Djokovic, who wants to compete in Australia but is awaiting further clarification expected by the end of October, cited privacy as the reason for not making his status public. It is surmised given his previous public statements, and his involvement in the ill-fated Adria Tour in June last year, that he is unvaccinated. But it is not confirmed.
There is also his role as the head of the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA) to consider when assessing any commentary from Djokovic on matters away from the court. He sparked a furore in February when issuing a list of recommendations to Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley regarding the quarantine conditions endured by the players. It was inflammatory at a time when Melburnians were not long out of a lengthy lockdown.
Largely overlooked in that controversy is that Djokovic was presenting the rules of a broad body of players, not those of himself. After all, he quarantined in luxury in Adelaide prior to a third-straight Australian Open win to start an extraordinary season in which he fell one match shy of completing a grand slam.
Similarly, there will be players in the PTPA headed by the Serbian and Vasek Pospisil who are currently not vaccinated and will be looking to their leaders for guidance and protection. Clearly the PTPA should be recommending vaccination, as all organisations are. Whether the tours issue a mandate is among the matters that will play out in coming months.
The vaccine-hesitant need look only at the impact a Covid-19 infection has had on the health of some of their peers amid the broader global devastation. Recent examples include Sofia Kenin, the 2020 Australian Open champion, who has not been seen on court since she withdrew from the US Open in late August with Covid-19.
Aryna Sabalenka joined the ranks of those forced out of significant events last week at Indian Wells when testing positive, which ended her hopes of usurping Ash Barty as the season-ending No 1. An increase in the number of vaccinated players is expected from next month, which will boost the confidence of Australian Open organisers and the host broadcaster.
The nature of the tour, with players rarely in one place for more than a week, is considered a factor in the delay of some competitors. But with the season soon to end, they will return to their own countries and have a window in which to undergo a vaccination course while either vacationing or preparing for 2022.
Andy Murray foreshadowed in late August at the US Open that life will be harder for unvaccinated players coming to Australia, if allowed, and on the tour in general. “The players that have been vaccinated are going to be having very different conditions to players who are not,” he said.
The Scottish champion’s assessment has proven as well-weighted as his topspin lobs. What unfolds in coming months might prove as fascinating to tennis fans as the interest in the comeback of Murray, a five-time Australian Open finalist.