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 issued a statement later Tuesday to confirm Djokovic will be allowed to compete at the tournament, which starts on Jan. 17, and is on his way to Australia. He earlier withdrew from Serbia’s team for the ATP Cup, which started last weekend 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. 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 that will enable us to ensure Australian Open 2022 is safe and enjoyable for everyone.”
“Central to this process was that the decisions were made by independent medical experts and that every applicant was given due consideration,” Tiley said.
Victoria state Deputy Premier James Merlino last month said the medical exemptions were “not a loophole for privileged tennis players.”
“It is a medical exemption in exceptional circumstances if you have an acute medical condition,” Merlino said at a news conference.
The decision announced Tuesday will be widely debated in a city which 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, and what quarantine conditions he will have to meet on arrival in Australia.
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.
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, and has recently been practising in Spain. 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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