No-Vax, No-Visa, Novak — The Grand Slam with Sam Ketch
The Australian Open main draw starts on January 17, we thought we finally knew that we would be seeing the world number one. It wasn’t a guarantee until an announcement on Tuesday. However, an MPs tweet has changed the landscape once again.
Late on Monday night I filed a piece about how we still didn’t know whether the world number one would be playing the Australian Open — something you only expect to gossip about if you’re discussing a return from an injury, not the lack of a vaccine in their system. It examined the whole issue and was pretty good, if you ask me. Alas, on Tuesday morning, as I went to hit publish, I got a lovely notification which went something along the lines of ‘Novak Djokovic to play at the Australian Open’; so thanks for that, Mr Djokovic.
Today, the story went nuclear. Every few minutes for a couple of hours this afternoon — late at night in Australia — there was an update. New statements, new facts. It was breaking news — a journalist’s delight.
Anyway let’s discuss what’s really going on here — and how Djokovic is down under, with no vaccine, and why he might not be welcome after all…
Novak Djokovic and the mysterious exemption
The facts: If Novak Djokovic needs an exemption then he is not vaccinated, the state of Victoria has a vaccine mandate for workers, there are medical exemptions available to unvaccinated people, Djokovic is not the only unvaccinated player at the tournament — he is one of a “handful”.
The fiction — debunked: He did not bribe his way in and he is there on a legitimate exemption — his application for an exemption went through two blind medical assessment panels.
However… What if that fiction is partially non-fiction? I have some scepticism, and I can’t be the only one, about what exemption Djokovic has qualified for. Perhaps there is more at play here? Perhaps Tennis Australia has bent some rules for the Serbian superstar — who is one of the few players who always attracts a full stadium — despite their constant exclamations that they’ve done nothing wrong.
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) say themselves that “there are very few situations where a vaccine is contraindicated and as such, medical exemption is expected to be rarely required”.
NB: Contraindicated means to ‘suggest or indicate that (a particular technique or drug) should not be used in the case in question.’
Or is it really just as simple as Djokovic testing positive in the last six months?
Today, Australian MP Jaala Pulford (Labor member for the Western Victoria Region) has tweeted that she — and the Victoria legislators — will not be providing Djokovic with “individual visa application support”; as “we’ve always been clear on two points: visa approvals are a matter for the Federal Government, and medical exemptions are a matter for doctors”. Pulford is the acting Victorian sports minister. She’s going to be important in the saga in the next few days.
A report by The Age in Australia is suggesting that Djokovic’s team submitted the wrong kind of visa request — which is why Pulford has been asked, by Border Patrol, to endorse the (wrong) visa application.
The irony? The visa they have accidentally submitted doesn’t allow people to travel in to Australia with a vaccine exemption.
Anyway, Australian Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said in a statement that “any individual seeking to enter Australia must comply with our strict border requirements”.
Andrews continued: “While the Victorian Government and Tennis Australia may permit a non-vaccinated player to compete in the Australian Open, it is the Commonwealth Government that will enforce our requirements at the Australian border.”
Scott Morrison, Australia’s Prime Minister, also weighed in. He started: “[Djokovic] must provide acceptable proof that he cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.
“If that evidence is insufficient, then he won’t be treated any different to anyone else and will be on the next plane home — there should be no special rules for Novak Djokovic.”
So this has got political, the last thing anyone really wants — myself included. Let’s step away from that, then, to talk exemptions — and how a fit and healthy, 20-time Grand Slam champion could possibly be eligible.
It’s possible that Djokovic has landed in Melbourne, at 11.30pm Australian time (they’re 11 hours ahead of the UK, meaning around midday on the 5th here) for no reason.
We know Djokovic’s exemption is unlikely to be major surgery — for the obvious reason that he wouldn’t be playing anyway — but also because he once said the following to The Telegraph: “I cried after I had the surgery on my elbow. Every time I thought about what I did, I felt like I had failed myself.”
Djokovic also said: “I was trying to avoid getting on that table because I am not a fan of surgeries or medications.
“I am just trying to be as natural as possible, and I believe that our bodies are self-healing mechanisms. I don’t ever want to get myself in the situation where I have to have another surgery.”
So assessing that answer, from 2018, we can presumably work out that every exemption possible is scratched off, except one.
The only plausible explanation is that he has had COVID-19 in the last six months (at this point, who hasn’t? Me, actually) but I’m looking at the last six months and seeing no public recording of his positive test.
Granted, he doesn’t have to make it public — nobody does, as long as you declare it to the authorities and follow the rules. But you’d imagine that’s what is about to happen anyway, based on the uproar surrounding his medical exemption — and the fact everyone is asking him to reveal which criteria he met for his exemption.
I’ve done the mental maths, or tried to at least, seeing if I could work out when he could possibly have returned a positive cases.
Six months to the day that he announced his departure to Australia was July 4 — middle Sunday at Wimbledon — but realistically it will have to been earlier than that when he submitted his request. We’re still, in all likelihood, talking about a starting point of Wimbledon.
Looking at the tournaments Djokovic played — Roland Garros, the Olympics, the US Open, the Paris Masters, the ATP Finals and the Davis Cup — there is only one tournament he withdrew from that he intended to play. Indian Wells.
It all checks out timeline wise and we can start to piece things together. The world number one, citing no reason, withdrew from a tournament after losing back-to-back Olympics and US Open finals; it was probably to do with a positive test and a second time fighting off COVID-19, right?
This is the only moment that a positive case could have come in the last six months, unless it was post-season (ie after the Davis Cup). In all likelihood, Djokovic’s exemption rests on that being the case — pun not intended.
So strip everything away. All the slams, all the political figures, all the names and dates and everything else. The story reeks, right?
Why make an exemptions list, if you are so against exemptions?
Why list a positive case in the last six months as an exemption, if you’re then going to say it’s not an exemption? In this case, I will be interested to see the reaction to that announcement — if it is the reason given — as it’s clearly already factored into a lot of people’s minds.
What happens next time we have this saga?
How long before we see COVID vaccine mandates in sport?
The other thing, to me, is that it’s clear there is bad faith acting on both sides. The Government of the State of Victoria and the Federal Government of Australia vs Novak Djokovic and his team.
Djokovic should not be forced into releasing information he wishes to keep private — I do fundamentally agree with that — but given we’re talking about a global fight to a pandemic, just one tiny bit of information here changes the whole framing of the story.
On the other hand, the forces acting ‘against’ Djokovic now clearly disagreed with giving him an exemption — so why have them available? Why have these processes in place if you disagree with their use?
The other thing is, it looks like they are using a bureaucratic error to ‘get’ him. He was granted an exemption; if his team didn’t make the visa error, what legal grounds would they have had to stop him? He’s travelling on an exemption, right?
I fear something has to give. And it’s likely not going to end pleasantly.
LASTEST — 18:11, Wednesday 5 January (UK).
This is the absolute latest update I can give before publication.
The latest news out of Serbia — thanks to reports which included quotes from Djokovic’s father — is that the tennis player has been locked in a guarded room to answer questions about his vaccine exemption application.
It’s currently 4:23am (time of writing) in Melbourne — I wouldn’t be surprised if the next big break was during the morning news shows over there, so in a couple of hours.
Follow me on Twitter, @samuelketch, and I’ll likely be following this story closely — as will every single news outlet, but really I’m your guy. I’m always your guy.