Novak Djokovic received “no special” favours to be granted a Covid vaccine exemption to play at the Australian Open, said tournament chief Craig Tiley on Wednesday, as the move sparked a furious backlash.
The nine-time Australian Open champion Djokovic announced late Tuesday he was en route to Melbourne with “an exemption permission”, ending the drawn-out saga over whether the world number one would defend his title.
All participants at the tournament, which starts on January 17, must be vaccinated against Covid-19 or have a medical exemption, which is granted only after assessment by two panels of independent experts.
The Serb has repeatedly refused to confirm if he has been inoculated and previously expressed opposition to the coronavirus vaccine.
Tiley defended the integrity of the process that reviewed Djokovic’s exemption application, which is overseen by national and Victorian state governments.
He revealed that 26 players or their support staff from the 3,000 or so travelling to Australia had asked for an exemption, and only a few of those had been successful.
“Any person who met those conditions has been allowed to come in. There’s been no special favour. There’s been no special opportunity granted to Novak,” Tiley told Channel Nine television.
Melbourne and Sydney have both endured months of restrictions and lockdowns over the past two years and allowing Djokovic to travel was widely criticised.
Prominent physician Stephen Parnis, a former Australian Medical Association vice-president, said it sent an appalling message to people trying to stop the spread of Covid-19.
“I don’t care how good a tennis player he is. If he’s refusing to get vaccinated, he shouldn’t be allowed in,” Parnis said on Twitter. “If this exemption is true, it sends an appalling message to millions seeking to reduce #Covid19Aus risk to themselves & others.”
Among the conditions allowing entry without a vaccine is if a person has had Covid-19 in the past six months. It has not been revealed if that is the case with Djokovic.
Tiley previously said the two panels assessed each exemption without knowing the identity of the applicant, with reasons for granting approval remaining confidential.
Djokovic expressed his opposition to the Covid-19 vaccine in April 2020 when it was suggested they might be obligatory so tournament play could resume.
“Personally I am not pro-vaccines,” said Djokovic said at the time. “I would not like it for someone to compel me to be vaccinated so I can travel.”
Some players expressed surprise with the ruling, including British doubles player Jamie Murray who said at the ATP Cup in Sydney: “I think if it was me that wasn’t vaccinated, I wouldn’t be getting an exemption.”
There was also outrage on the streets of Melbourne, with local resident Ron Wilson telling AFP: “I think it’s disgusting. I think he should have made his mind up before now and it shouldn’t be a last-minute decision to get him in.”
Other city residents were more sympathetic with Morteza Yari saying: “I think as long as the exemption is valid and they have valid reasons I don’t see a problem with that.”
Tiley said he understood the community being concerned.
“People this morning would wake up to that news (and I) would completely understand and empathise with them being completely upset,” he said.
Confirmation that the Serb was en route sets the scene for a showdown with Rafael Nadal with both tennis greats seeking a record 21st Grand Slam title at Melbourne Park.
The Spanish great is already in Melbourne after recovering from the coronavirus he contracted at an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi last month.
Fellow 20-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer is injured and not travelling to Australia.