Novak Djokovic May Play at the Australian Open After All as Vaccine Saga Continues

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MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 02: Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates a point during his Men's Singles Final match against Dominic Thiem of Austria on day fourteen of the 2020 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on February 02, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 02: Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates a point during his Men's Singles Final match against Dominic Thiem of Austria on day fourteen of the 2020 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on February 02, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)

Leading up to the first Grand Slam of the tennis season, fans had a question for organizers: will Novak Djokovic play at the 2022 Australian Open? After all, he originally declined to reveal his COVID-19 vaccination status, and full vaccination is a requirement for players unless they are medically exempt. Now, the answer is official (sort of). The world No. 1 and nine-time Australian Open singles champ hopes to defend last year's title following a medical exemption - though a lot has happened since. Let's break it down.

Novak Djokovic Was Denied Entry Into Australia, Visa Canceled

Djokovic was denied entry into Melbourne, Australia, as of Jan. 5 after he was granted a medical exemption from meeting the Australian Open's COVID vaccination requirement. The UK's The Times initially reported that he was denied entry due to a mix-up with his visa application, where a member of his team requested a type of visa that doesn't apply to people who've received COVID vaccine medical exemptions. The Australian Border Force (ABF) confirmed later on that Djokovic's visa was canceled because he "failed to provide appropriate evidence to meet the entry requirements to Australia."

Djokovic's lawyers appealed this decision, and while he awaited his hearing, he remained in a hotel where ABF reportedly holds refugees and asylum seekers; USA Today cited reports of deteriorating conditions inside the hotel. Protests broke out in places like Serbia and Australia over the course of this days-long saga (that isn't quite over yet).

Novak Djokovic's Visa Was Reinstated After Lawyers Appealed

The Associated Press reported that Federal Circuit Court Judge Anthony Kelly reinstated Djokovic's visa on Jan. 10. The judge ruled that Djokovic had not been given enough time to speak to his lawyers and tournament organizers before his visa was canceled. However, a government lawyer said Alex Hawke, the immigration minister, would consider exercising a "personal power of cancellation" for the visa. If that were the case, Djokovic would therefore be banned from the country for three years.

After his release, Djokovic shared an image of himself and his team back on the court, writing on Twitter that he was "pleased and grateful" the judge overturned his visa cancellation and that he still wants to compete at the Australian Open. "For now I cannot say more but THANK YOU all for standing with me through all this and encouraging me to stay strong," he wrote.

Why Did Novak Djokovic Get a Medical Exemption in the First Place?

Tournament officials said in a Jan. 4 media statement that Djokovic's application for a medical exemption was granted approval by two independent panels - a panel of "immunology, infectious disease and general practice" doctors and the Independent Medical Exemption Review Panel appointed by the Victorian Department of Health. Applications were only approved if they met Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) guidelines.

That same media statement noted it is protocol that personal info be redacted from these medical exemption applications for privacy. However, it's safe to assume now that Djokovic was granted the medical exemption because he had tested positive for COVID on Dec. 16, 2021, since Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley did clarify last week that, based on ATAGI guidelines, expert panels would grant exemptions to Australian Open players who had COVID over the past six months. The saga turned political with Tennis Australia and different government entities (state and federal) pointing fingers at one another.

Djokovic, who also tested positive for COVID back in June 2020, has criticized vaccine requirements for tournament play in the past. He was photographed unmasked at an event with young tennis players on Dec. 17, 2021, a day after his positive COVID test, though it is unclear if he knew of his results at the time.

The 2022 Australian Open starts on Jan. 17.

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