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Explained: How does Novak Djokovic get to compete at the Australian Open

On Tuesday, the Independent Medical Exemption Review Panel appointed by the Victorian Department of Health provided Novak Djokovic a medical exemption, sparking outrage in Australia alleging favouritism.

Novak Djokovic, Djokovic #1, ATP rankings, ATP mens rankings, Djokovic grand slams, Djokovic ATM points, Indian ExpressNovak Djokovic celebrates winning his final match against Russia's Daniil Medvedev at the Australian Open 2021. (Reuters/File)

“Novak Djokovic has 20 Grand Slams titles, nine Australian Opens, he’s been on the circuit since 2003,” lists a senior reporter on a Sunrise (7 News) morning segment on Wednesday, about one of world sport’s most documented players. “And no one knew he had a serious medical issue through all this.”

The sarcastic tone mimics the sentiment shared by Melbourne locals – who have gone through 262 days of lockdown (the most for any major city in the world) to combat the pandemic. Accordingly, the Victoria government announced, and Tennis Australia reiterated, a few months ago, that every individual that enters Melbourne Park for the Australian Open will need to be fully vaccinated.

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This would mean World No 1 Djokovic, who has refused to reveal his vaccination status, would not be allowed to defend his title – that is, unless he had a medical exemption because of a condition that stopped him from being inoculated.

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On Tuesday, the Independent Medical Exemption Review Panel appointed by the Victorian Department of Health provided him that exemption, sparking outrage in Australia alleging favouritism.

OUTRAGE

“Apparently, it’s an independent panel,” said Australian player James Duckworth, while suppressing a smile and shrugging. “He must have fit the criteria somehow. If he’s fit the criteria, he should be able to come.”

The ‘criteria’ for exemption, as declared by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI), lists: Inflammatory cardiac illness within the past three months; Acute major medical condition; a positive Covid-19 infection in the past six months (which can result in vaccination being deferred), and Adverse Events Following Immunisation (this can only work if a previous dose has been taken).

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With such conditions listed, it is unlikely that a professional tennis player suffering from any of these could compete at the level Djokovic did over the past few months.

What may irk crowds further is Djokovic’s track record in dealing with the pandemic. He had infamously organised the Adria Tour event in the Balkans – with no restrictions or protocols in place – while the pandemic raged in June 2020. It resulted in several players – including himself – testing positive. And he’s been adamant in his refusal to be inoculated, or even reveal if he’s taken a shot.

There is also no telling on what criteria Djokovic received the exemption – something only the player can reveal.

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News of the Serb getting the exemption and travelling to Australia came just a day before the ongoing Big Bash League had to cancel its game between Brisbane Heat and Sydney Sixers because 12 players from the Heat franchise tested positive.

PROCESS

Tournament director Craig Tiley claimed that 26 individuals had applied for exemption but only a handful were granted it.

The applications were reviewed by two separate panels of doctors and experts, including the Independent Medical Exemption Review Panel – set up by the same state government that previously said it will be strict in ensuring arriving players are all vaccinated.

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic in action during the match against Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka  (File/REUTERS)

Curiously, there is no cross-checking as to the authenticity of the documents provided.

“In some instances, they requested additional information but, no, they wouldn’t have contact with doctors from another country,” Tennis Australia’s chief medical officer Carolyn Broderick told The Age. “(The review panels) were looking for official seals on these documents from overseas, it wasn’t just based on a text message.

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“Some of the documents they’re receiving from overseas… These were actually formal laboratory reports. As far as any medical professional would look at the documents, they’re not doing any sort of intelligence operation.”

POSSIBLE LOOPHOLE

In general, the criteria and process are clear, including the travellers who are allowed to apply for exemptions, as listed on the Australian government’s Department of Home Affairs website.

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Essentially, the list includes those travellers that wish to arrive in Australia with the purpose of “assisting in Covid-19 response.” Individuals who can provide medical and critical services are also eligible for exemption, as are students. There is no mention of ‘sportsperson’ or ‘athlete’ whatsoever.

There is however, an arbitrary criterion: “a foreign national whose entry into Australia would be in the national interest, supported by the Australian Government or a state or territory government authority.”

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This does not list who would be of ‘national interest,’ and so that decision is left with the government agencies whether the World No. 1, the defending champion at Australia’s grandest tennis event, and arguably one of the three major crowd pullers in men’s tennis, fits that billing.

In terms of what ailment Djokovic may have had that renders him unable to take the vaccine, there is the possibility that he may have been infected with the virus – for the second time – during the last six months. This would force him to defer his inoculation dates by six months.

FAVOURITISM

Former doubles World No. 1 Jamie Murray – the elder brother of three-time singles Major winner Andy – was quick with his assessment of Djokovic’s exemption.

“I think if it was me that wasn’t vaccinated, I wouldn’t be getting an exemption,” he said. The ATP Cup captain for Great Britain Liam Broady claimed: “You just have to trust that he has a valid reason for the medical exemption. That’s all you can say, really.”

Djokovic Serbia’s Novak Djokovic hits a forehand against Germany’s Jan-Lennard Struff during a Davis Cup group F match between Serbia and Germany in Austria. (AP)

Two-time Australian Open quarterfinalist Tennys Sandgren, who has also not been vaccinated, had not applied for exemption since he did not fit the requirements stated on the government website. When a news post on social media announced Djokovic will be travelling to the Slam, Sandgren was asked by fellow American Tommy Paul if he too will be competing. “Not quite the same pull”, came Sandgren’s answer.

Another American player Mitchell Krueger retweeted the exemption for Djokovic by saying “In other news, water is wet and sky is blue” hinting that this was a rather obvious outcome.

But there will be a few players feeling hard done by.

Russian player Natalia Vikhlyantseva, a former World No. 54 currently ranked 195, could not travel for the qualifiers because she has been fully vaccinated with the Sputnik vaccine, which is not recognised in Australia. Similarly, Indian youngster Aman Dahiya, who was hoping to play in the boys’ event, has received just one shot since vaccines were only recently made available to U18s in India. His request too has been denied.

Meanwhile, an unvaccinated Djokovic has been granted entry.

First published on: 05-01-2022 at 18:16 IST
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