Why It Matters that Tennis Star Novak Djokovic Isn’t Vaccinated


@djokernole on Instagram

Tennis player Novak Djokovic caused a media debate when he attempted to participate in the Australian Open while unvaccinated.

Clare Malhotra, Editor-in-Chief

When tennis player Novak Djokovic landed in Australia for a tournament on January 5, immigration officials learned he was unvaccinated and tried to turn him away. A weeklong fight ensued, as Djokovic’s lawyers attempted to argue for medical exemption. A number of fans supported him in the streets, while tennis players both supported and condemned him on social media. 

It eventually became clear that Djokovic would likely not be playing in the Australian Open. Regardless, here’s why all the chaos matters.

Djokovic is widely considered to be one of the greatest tennis players of all time, making him not just an athlete, but a celebrity. His followers—which number 10 million on Instagram—watch his moves on and off of the tennis court.

The proposed medical exemption was based on the fact that he had had COVID in December of 2021. According to the Australian Government Department of Health, a medical exemption based on a prior positive COVID test only applies until the person has recovered from the virus, which Djokovic has. “I think if it was me that wasn’t vaccinated, I wouldn’t be getting an exemption,” Jamie Murray, a less well-known British tennis player, said. Australian politician James Merlino agreed that Djokovic was receiving special treatment. “Medical exemptions are… not a ‘loophole’ for privileged tennis players,” Merlino said.

Throughout the pandemic, Djokovic has been known to disobey COVID regulations. Last June, he held an exhibition tour that became a superspreader event. This recent December, after Djokovic had tested positive—the result he would use to justify his unvaccinated status this month—he attended a photoshoot and interview with a French sports newspaper, L’Equipe.

He took to Instagram to discuss the controversy surrounding the Australian Open, and also explained his logic with the L’Equipe interview. “I felt obliged to go ahead and conduct the L’Equipe interview as I didn’t want to let the journalist down,” he said. “On reflection, this was an error of judgement.”

In addition, it was revealed that the entry forms he filled out to enter Australia contained incorrect information about his previous travel. In the same aforementioned Instagram post, Djokovic called this an “administrative mistake” and said that “[his] agent sincerely apologises,” therefore taking the blame off of himself.

“I just want to have an opportunity to compete,” he wrote in his statement. His attitudes, both towards his vaccine for Australia, but also towards his positive test and superspreader event, has focused more on himself than on the pandemic and rising COVID case numbers. Since Djokovic is such a public figure, his getting vaccinated contributes not just to herd immunity, but to public sentiment around the vaccine. 

In addition, Twitter users and tennis fans have pointed to the double standard that Djokovic’s standoff has emphasized. In response to the legal debate in Australia, the French Open publicly stated that Djokovic was allowed to play regardless of vaccination status. However, in 2018, the French Open banned a catsuit that Serena Williams was wearing due to a blood clot condition. Last year, the same tournament fined Naomi Osaka for deciding not to participate in press interviews, leading to her eventual withdrawal. Both female tennis players are, similarly to Djokovic, widely revered as some of the greatest tennis players in the world. However, as women of color, they didn’t get the rules bent for them as Djokovic did. 

“If Naomi Osaka or Serena Williams acted in the way Novak Djokovic has acted in the past couple weeks—the tennis association would be sharpening their knives,” actor Francis Maxwell wrote on Twitter.

Regardless of whether the final legal battle saw Djokovic play in the tournament, the fact that he was not automatically turned out of the country for breaking the rules in itself constitutes a double standard.