Could Australia vaccine requirement cost Novak Djokovic chance at record grand slam?

Since his bitterly disappointing loss in the U.S. Open final, Novak Djokovic has basically gone underground.

Even with Daniil Medvedev in position to potentially catch him for the No. 1 ranking, Djokovic chose not to return to the U.S. this week for the Indian Wells BNP Paribas Open, one of the top tournaments of the year outside the Grand Slams. His last Instagram post was Sept. 13, and his Twitter feed lately hasn’t offered much of anything. It’s also unclear whether he plans to play the last two big tournaments of the year at the Paris Masters and the ATP Finals.

After the emotionally and physically draining quest for the calendar Grand Slam and the Olympic gold medal, both of which ended unsuccessfully, it’s possible we won’t see Djokovic back on the court until January at the Australian Open, a tournament he’s won a record nine times.

But the intrigue around Djokovic’s next bid to win his 21st Grand Slam title has been heightened in recent days after reports out of Australia suggesting that players coming into the country for the tournament will have to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 with no exceptions — even for arguably the greatest of the all time.

Novak Djokovic reacts to a missed shot against Daniil Medvedev during the U.S. Open men's singles final.

Novak Djokovic reacts to a missed shot against Daniil Medvedev during the U.S. Open men’s singles final.

“The only title that will protect you is you being able to have had your first dose and second dose,” Daniel Andrews, the head government official in the state of Victoria, recently told reporters. “If you are coming to visit, the notion of you getting in here without being vaccinated, I think, is very, very low.”

Djokovic has refused to answer whether he received the COVID-19 vaccine, but he’s been skeptical about it in the past and said earlier this year it shouldn’t be a requirement to play on the tour. Fair or not, the assumption around tennis has been that Djokovic, like so many of his colleagues, remains unvaccinated.

This isn’t just a Djokovic issue. Around the time of the U.S. Open, the ATP and WTA both acknowledged that only about half of their players had been vaccinated with many of the holdouts spewing misinformation. Stefanos Tsitsipas got a public rebuke from the Greek government after saying in August, “I don’t see any reason for someone of my age to do it.” Earlier this year, women’s No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka said she didn’t “trust” the vaccine. She ended up testing positive or COVID-19 this past week and had to withdraw from Indian Wells.

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Up until now, there have been no significant consequences for unvaccinated tennis players, even though they’re flying from country to country and often playing in stadiums where proof of vaccination is mandatory to get in as a fan.

But Australia isn’t messing around — especially in the region around Melbourne, where the tournament takes place.

A year ago, Tennis Australia negotiated an arrangement with the local government where players and their coaches coming into the country had to quarantine for 14 days at a hotel. Within that span, they were allowed to practice for several hours a day, though around 70 players were subjected to a hard quarantine because they were on a flight with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival.

For 2022, the tournament has hinted at a less strict arrangement where players can move freely within a bubble during the quarantine period. But if local health authorities determine that all players must be vaccinated to compete — and the recent signals from Victoria indicate that’s where it’s headed — it could put a lot of pressure on the unvaccinated to go ahead and get the shot.

The Age newspaper in Melbourne recently reported that Craig Tiley, the head of Tennis Australia, “spent months raising concerns about a mandate because of its potential to turn away a group of top players” but has since “become resigned to it” in his conversations with government officials.

We know that Djokovic, at this point in his career, is only focused on winning major titles and breaking the current tie with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who each have 20. It’s also logical that Djokovic would want to do it in Rod Laver Arena, which he’s called his favorite court in the world and where he’s almost been unbeatable over the course of his career.

The notion of Djokovic skipping a Grand Slam, particularly one he’d be favored to win, is almost unthinkable. But unless he acknowledges that he’s been vaccinated, whether Djokovic even attempts to win his 10th Australian title will remain an open question.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Will COVID-19 vaccine requirement cost Novak Djokovic Australian Open?

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