It's happening again.
With under three months to go until the start of the 2022 Australian Open, talk of quarantine rules, bio-secure bubbles and mandatory vaccines continues to rumble on.
And just as in Melbourne earlier this year - when he was branded a 'tool' by Nick Kyrgios and incurred the wrath of the Australian public for using his position to ask officials to loosen quarantine rules for players - Djokovic is front and centre of tennis’ vaccination debate.
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The world No.1 has the chance to make history in Melbourne by winning a 21st Grand Slam title that would take him one ahead of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the all-time standings. It’s a momentous opportunity for Djokovic to make history at his most successful major, yet it’s one he says he may not even attempt.
As Melbourne has emerged from the longest lockdown in the world, questions are being asked about what happens next; and what rules are set to be in place for the 2022 Australian Open. The question of whether players will need to be vaccinated to take part seems to now be a firm ‘yes’, with Minister for Immigration Alex Hawke saying overseas players would need to have had two vaccination shots to enter the country. With recent reports claiming that vaccination rates on the ATP Tour are 65 per cent, and 60 per cent on the WTA Tour, time is running out for some.
Few actually know whether that includes Djokovic, who, it has been rumoured, may already be vaccinated after he was pictured at an event in New York over the summer which required attendees to be jabbed. Yet the Serb continues to lead the conversation, without actually saying much at all until this week.
Djokovic is not entirely blameless in this. He largely finds himself in this position because of previous comments he has made that suggested he wouldn’t get vaccinated unless it was mandatory, and because of some highly questionable choices around last year's Adria Tour, which resulted in him and other players catching Covid-19 after partying topless in nightclubs. He has been labelled an anti-vaxxer - which he has stressed he is not - and in an interview this week he refused to reveal whether he had been fully vaccinated or not, saying it is "a private matter and an inappropriate inquiry". He is far from the only tennis player not to reveal their vaccination status, yet Australian officials are repeatedly getting asked what their specific 'message' would be for Djokovic with regards to the vaccine and entry into Australia. Responses like Covid "doesn't care what your tennis ranking is or how many Grand Slam titles you have won" only add fuel to the fire that Djokovic is trying to get some sort of special exemption, which seems far from the case.
If Djokovic hasn’t been vaccinated, he clearly has a big decision to make. The timescale now means that anyone who intends to get vaccinated so they can play in Australia needs to do so soon. Some vaccines require three or four weeks between shots, and then two more weeks before you are considered to be fully vaccinated. Players are expected to be arriving in Australia during the festive period so that they have enough time to prepare for the Australian Open which starts on January 17. But the state of Victoria has also set a deadline of November 26 for “authorised workers”, which includes professional athletes, to have had both shots, otherwise they won’t be allowed to work on site.
Djokovic seems genuinely torn about whether he will compete. “I'm telling you, I don't know if I'll go,” he said this week. “Of course I want to go, Australia is my most successful Grand Slam, I want to participate, I love this sport, I still have motivation.”
But it's the potential quarantine situation rather than the vaccine that appears to be the big issue for Djokovic. Players will likely not be confined to their hotel rooms as they were in January, but there could still be some time spent in quarantine. Current Victoria rules are for 14 days in quarantine, although as the country opens up that should change. The state of New South Wales will be soon be ditching quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated travellers after reaching an 80 per cent vaccination rate. Victoria is predicted to reach that milestone in November.
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But there could still be the potential issue of close contact with a person on a plane who tests positive, which may result in a 14-day quarantine.
Djokovic’s fellow Serb Filip Krajinovic, who has been vaccinated, has said that he will not go to Melbourne if players are required to quarantine for more than five days. “If they (the organisers) say that after arrival I need, say, five days to be in isolation, that’s OK for me, but anything beyond that is unacceptable to me,” he told Blic. Indian Wells runner-up Victoria Azarenka talked recently about quarantine being “damaging mentally and physically”, and a number of players expressed their unhappiness with the situation at the Australian Open earlier this year. Even though rules will not be as strict as the 2021 Australian Open, they will be tighter than at many other tournaments that players have experienced this season.
If Djokovic is just worried about the quarantine conditions then you would think that is an obstacle he can overcome in pursuit of history. He did so earlier this year in Melbourne and in Tokyo for the Olympic Games, although perhaps a taxing season has worn down his enthusiasm for another long trip and strict living conditions.
The vaccine is clearly a different issue, and one that may require him to put his beliefs to one side in order to play tennis. Given his comments about the way he believes the media have tried to sway public opinion on the vaccine, it seems unlikely he will have his own mind swayed. But whatever his decision or outlook, Djokovic should not be criticised for giving his honest opinion about the vaccine. If he does or doesn't get vaccinated that is his decision to make and he will be aware how it could impact his chances of winning another Grand Slam title. He's not the only player to have voiced scepticism about getting jabbed and there's a chance some may not make it to Melbourne if the vaccine is made mandatory.
While Djokovic seems like he still has some thinking to do, former Australia doubles legend Todd Woodbridge says he thinks it would be a 'shock' if he didn’t play in Melbourne.
“With so much on the line for Novak, you've got to think that he's seriously going to think about it," Woodbridge said. "Coming to the tournament that he's won so much, you've got to think he's seriously thinking about doing it. It would be a shock to me if he doesn't come to Australia.”
Purely in terms of the Grand Slam race, Djokovic not playing the Australian Open would open up the possibility that he could fall behind Nadal, who will be hoping to recover from injury to be fully fit for next year’s French Open. Djokovic stressed this week the importance of winning majors at this stage of his career, saying that all other tournaments are just preparation for majors or playing for Serbia. Given that, will he really pass up the opportunity to add another to his tally at his most successful major? If he does it's surely a decision he won't take lightly.
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