April 18, 2024

Open Court


Vaccinated, absent or exempt – the road to AO 2022

Will he or won’t he? Has he or hasn’t he?

Novak Djokovic has kept the suspense alive for months, concerning his participation in next month’s Australian Open and warmup events.

But with the nine-time Australian Open champion scheduled to take the court in just 10 days – on Jan. 1 in Sydney, when Serbia faces Norway in the ATP Cup – we know one thing.

He is not going to travel to Sydney unvaccinated and do the 14-day hotel quarantine. Because if he were, he’d already have to have been there for nearly a week.

So the only option for Djokovic – and any other players who are unvaccinated but still want to compete in the first Grand Slam of the 2022 season – is a medical exemption.

They’re expecting full crowds at the 2022 Australian Open. But the reaction to Novak Djokovic – if he is cleared to play – will be fascinating.

Focus on Djokovic understandable

If it seems unfair to his fans that all the attention is on Djokovic on this issue, it’s completely understandable.

One aspect is the fact that he’s a … nine-time AO champion chasing history. The other issue is that he is one of the few well-known players whose stance on vaccines is public.

And it’s unknown if the members of his team who also will be travelling are vaccinated. That would include his wife, of course, if she makes the trip.

Coach Goran Ivanisevic left the ATP Finals in Turin a few weeks ago, after his son contracted the virus.

If there are others who end up getting medical exemptions and competing, it’s likely not to become public knowledge. Hence the focus on the world No. 1.

(There always is the possibility that Djokovic has gotten vaccinated and just hasn’t shared that news. Never eliminate any possibility. But that one seems lowest on the probability pole).

The Melbournians have been in and out of lockdown for a long period of time. And they still face fairly restrictive measures in terms of trying to live their lives if they refuse the jab.

After a bit of a honeymoon period, the arrival of the Omicron variant with a vengrance has plunged them back into restrictions again (although not a lockdown).

With the percentage of Victoria residents fully vaccinated already well into the 90s in short order, the general reaction seems to be a pretty low tolerance for anyone who arrives unvaccinated.

A Herald Sun poll this week drew nearly 6,000 responses. And the verdict was clear.

So if Djokovic does manage a medical exemption – more broadly, if it becomes known that any other player has also managed it – the reaction from the crowds at Melbourne Park is going to be something to watch.

As of Dec. 23, Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said that no players have yet told them they will be in on an exemption. Of course, they’re not going to ask, either.

“If Novak shows up at the Australian Open, he’ll either be vaccinated or he’ll have a medical exemption. His choice on his medical condition, it’s his choice to keep personal and private like all of us would do with any condition we may or may not have,” Tiley said. “We are not going to force him or ask him to disclose that.”

Independant panel – then ATAGI

The medical vaccine exemption process is two-fold. But ultimately it has to go through, and be approved by ATAGI (the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunization).

People can enter the country with a medical exemption issued overseas. But they can’t access the tennis venues until that exemption is reviewed and approved by the ATAGI.

According to the information disseminated to the players earlier this month, the first step is to go to an “independent Australian medical practitioner”, or through the independant panel of “expert medical personnel”, which was set up to help the players with the process.

The deadline for applying for those was Dec. 10 – nearly two weeks ago.

And the parameters for approving that temporary exemption are fairly clear, although the word “include” is fairly prominent. So that leaves some wiggle room.

(Photo: Tennis Australia/ SCOTT BARBOUR)

Criteria for medical exemption

*Inflammatory cardiac illness (myocarditis or pericarditis) within the last three months, acute rheumatic fever or acute rheumatic heart disease (i.e. with active myocardial inflammation), or acute decompensated heart failure.

*For mRNA vaccines, an acute major medical condition (undergoing major surgery or hospital admission for a serious illness). Typically, there are time-limited conditions (or the medical treatment for them is limited).

*A PCR-confirmed case of COVID after July 31, 2001, where vaccination can be deferred until six months after the injection (or 90 days if the individual received monoclonal antibodies or convalescent plasma). In other words, a pretty recent case.

*Any serious adverse event attributed to a previous dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, without another cause identified, with no acceptable alternate vaccine available (i.e. someone who can’t take another dose of the Pfizer vaccine, but who is under 60 and for whom the risk of AstraZeneca outweighs the taking of the vaccine). In other words, someone would already have had to have a first dose, with serious side effects. Having Long COVID doesn’t qualify in this category.

*If a vaccinee is a risk to themselves or others during the vaccination process. This may include having underlying developmental or mental health disorders, but noting that non-pharmalogical interventions can safely facilitate vaccinations in many individuals with behavioural disturbances and that specialist services may be available to facailitate the safe administration of vaccines in this population.

Obviously, most if not all of those criteria do not apply to Djokovic.

Elina Svitolina was one of the vaccine-hesitant early on – her “friends” suggested she shouldn’t do it. But husband Gaël Monfils is a strong proponent – one of the few people around the US Open last summer to mask up even while watching outside. And in the end, she did the deed as did other resistors like Aryna Sabalenka and Daniil Medvedev.

Additional exemption guidance from Tennis Australia

Per the information shared with the players, a “serious adverse event” to a first shot of vaccine means it “led to hospitalization or resulted in significant disability / incapacity” or “is potentially life-threatening”.

They also add that the following situations are NOT considered for the medical exemption:

–family history of adverse reactions to vaccines
–chronic underlying medical condition
–minor, common or expected vaccine side effects
–allergies (to other vaccines, medication, egg, foods, latex, venom, etc).

The complete outline from ATAGI can be found here.

Fully-vaccinated? Here’s what that means

Here is the information the players have received about what qualifies as fully vaccinated, in terms of being to enter the country.

It is contained in the same documents. But, notably, it does not specify that a medical exemption is as good as being fully vaccinated for those purposes. And it doesn’t draw the distinction between being exempt to be able to access Melbourne Park, and exempt from the vaccine requirements to enter the country.

That list, of course, does not include the Sputnik vaccine. Which has led at least one player to have to skip the trip.

Having already had COVID but not having had two doses of an approved vaccine (except for the Johnson & Johnson one-dose jab) does not qualify people as fully vaccinated, as of right now. From the sound of it, Tennis Australia was trying pretty hard to get anyone who had previously had COVID (before the accepted cutoff of July 31, 2021) to be exempted, but didn’t get a positive outcome.

No concerns about entire flights being affected

In stark contrast to last January, there is apparently no danger that if someone tests positive on one of the charter flights Tennis Australia has arranged, that the entire plane would have to quarantine.

Close contacts on those flights will only be people within two rows in any direction of a confirmed cast. And they will only need to isolate until a COVID test comes back negative.

But if players are sharing a house or a room with someone who tests positive, those close contacts will have to isolate for seven days if they’re fully vaccinated (14 days if they’re not fully vaccinated).

The tournament has booked two hotels in Melbourne that will only be used by people involved with the tournament. But there doesn’t seem to be an embargo on players renting their own houses. In a recent interview, world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty said she would be renting one, even if Tiley maintains *all* the players will be in official accommodation.

Who will play? It’s complicated

According to the Daily Mail, the latest percentage of top-100 players vaccinated on the WTA Tour is still only at 85 percent.

That, obviously, flies in the face of the various percentages Tiley has trotted out at various times.

But strictly speaking, it means that as many as 15 players who normally would have been in the women’s singles main draw won’t be there. They would have had to be vaccinated by now for the effectiveness period to have kicked in.

There are few withdrawals so far. But every player who does withdraw between now and the event will go under the microscope.

So far, the players who have officially withdrawn do not appear to be COVID-related.

Bianca Andreescu is dealing with some … things.

Karolina Pliskova injured her hand during preseason in Dubai last week.

Karolina Muchova is dealing with a long-term injury that has had her off the court since losing in the first round of the US Open.

Beyond that, Hsieh Su-Wei (who is a few out of the main draw in singles) is off the list so far.

Vikhlyantseva ineligible with Sputnik vaccine

Kudos to the Russian for getting vaccinated.

But it’s not news to anyone that the Russian vaccine is not accepted by … most countries at this point.

Still, it means Natalia Vikhlyantseva will not be making the trip to Australia. Which is a shame. It feels like that should be grounds for an exemption.

And she might well not be alone.

Herbert, Gadecki unkeen on the jab

A few other players have made their stand against vaccination clear, by opting to skip the potentially lucrative Aussie summer.

Among the more well-known is former Australian Open doubles champion Pierre-Hugues Herbert.

Herbert currently would be the next player into the singles main draw. So there’s every reason to think he’d make it. As well, he and Nicolas Mahut would be among the favorites to win the men’s doubles.

As it is, Mahut will play with countryman Fabrice Martin.

Aussie teenager Olivia Gadecki, who would have been gifted with a plethora of wild cards during the Aussie summer, also is taking a pass because of her beliefs.

Gadecki, who notably defeated 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin in Melbourne in January in the second-week WTA event (after which Kenin went in for an appendectomy) is passing on a huge career and financial opportunity this summer Down Under because of her opposition to vaccines.

Babos “scared of COVID camps”

And two-time Australian Open doubles champion and former No. 1 Timea Babos also is taking a pass, after a very tough 2021 in which she got dumped by longtime partner Kristina Mladenovic for her singles priorities, got COVID and dealt with a succession of injuries.

Babos announced late last week that she was taking a pass, in a post that included some inaccurate information about quarantining.




Babos is currently at No. 25 in doubles and No. 160 in singles, which would require her to qualify.

She retired in the first round of the WTA tournament at home in Budapest, right after Wimbledon (she was down 0-6, 0-2 to Aliaksandra Sasnovich. She didn’t return until late October, when she played a series of low-level $25,000 ITF tournaments.



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