By JOHN PYE
AP Sports Writer
BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — Novak Djokovic will get a chance to defend his Australian Open title after receiving a medical exemption to travel to Melbourne, ending months of uncertainty about his participation because of the strict COVID-19 vaccination requirements in place for the tournament.
The top-ranked Djokovic wrote on Instagram on Tuesday he has “an exemption permission.”
Djokovic, who is seeking a record 21st Grand Slam singles title, has continually refused to reveal if he is vaccinated against the coronavirus. The Victoria state government has mandated that all players, staff and fans attending the Australian Open must be fully vaccinated unless there is a genuine reason why an exemption should be granted.
Australian Open organizers quickly responded with a statement confirming Djokovic was on his way to Australia to compete at the tournament, which starts on Jan. 17. He’d earlier withdrawn from Serbia’s team for the ATP Cup, which is being played this week in Sydney.
“Djokovic applied for a medical exemption which was granted following a rigorous review process involving two separate independent panels of medical experts,” the statement said. “One of those was the Independent Medical Exemption Review Panel appointed by the Victorian Department of Health. They assessed all applications to see if they met the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation guidelines.”
Tennis Australia said the process included the “redaction of personal information to ensure privacy for all applicants,” with details of names, ages and nationalities removed. That means Djokovic was not obliged to make his exemption public.
Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said “fair and independent protocols” were established for assessing medical exemption applications” and Djokovic went through that “completely legitimate application and process.”
Tiley on Wednesday said 26 players or support staff made anonymous applications for a medical exemption, although only a “handful” — an estimated one in five — were granted. He said Djokovic was treated no differently than anyone else.
Victoria state Deputy Premier James Merlino last month insisted the medical exemptions would not be “a loophole for privileged tennis players” and would only be possible in “exceptional circumstances if you have an acute medical condition.”
Jaala Pulford, the state’s acting minister for sports, on Wednesday said “no one is or will be receiving special treatment because of who they are or what they have achieved professionally.”
“Lots of people in the Victorian community will find this to be a disappointing outcome, but the process is the process,” Pulford said. “Nobody has had special treatment. The process is incredibly robust.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the decision was a matter for the government of Victoria, where Melbourne is the state capital.
“They have provided (Djokovic) with an exemption to come to Australia, and so we then act in accordance with that,” Morrison said. “States provide exemptions for people to enter on those basis, and that’s been happening for the last two years.”
The decision is being widely debated in a city where most people endured months of strict lockdowns and harsh travel restrictions at the height of the pandemic.
Reaction on social media quickly turned to questions about the grounds for Djokovic’s exemption.
Reasons for exemptions can include an acute major medical condition, serious adverse reaction to a previous dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, or evidence of a COVID-19 infection within the previous six months.
Tiley said he wasn’t aware of the grounds for Djokovic’s exemption, adding: “The only way we could access that information is if an individual decides to share it.”
But, he said, it would be “helpful” if Djokovic chose to explain.
“I would encourage him to talk to the community about it,” Tiley said. “We have been through a very tough period over the last two years and would appreciate some answers to that.”
Last year, all foreign players had to spend two weeks in hotel quarantine before the Australian Open, pushing the year’s first major back from its usual mid-January start. There were also strict caps on crowd numbers, and days when fans weren’t allowed into Melbourne Park as coronavirus cases surged.
There’s no cap on crowd numbers for the 2022 tournament and no strict hotel quarantine for players, although proof of double vaccination for COVID-19 is a requirement for entry and players will undergo daily testing.
Djokovic will avoid hotel quarantine upon arrival, with visitors to Australia who have medical exemptions for the vaccination treated the same as fully vaccinated people.
The 34-year-old Djokovic has won nine of his 20 major titles at the Australian Open. He shares the men’s record for most majors with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Djokovic hasn’t played at tour level since the Davis Cup Finals in early December. His posts on social media announcing his plans to travel to Australia were accompanied by a photo of Djokovic leaning on a tennis bag at an airport.
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