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Djokovic needs to tell the truth to keep respect

Kommentarbild Matt Pearson
Matt Pearson
January 5, 2022

Novak Djokovic is facing a serious backlash after being granted an exemption to play at the Australian Open. DW's Matt Pearson says the only way he can salvage his reputation is to front up about his vaccination views.

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic is aiming to move ahead of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in career Grand SlamsImage: Patrick Semansky/AP/dpa/picture alliance

The condemnation has been swift, near-universal and seems entirely justified.

The tennis star's exemption to vaccination rules for entry to the Australian Open looks suspiciously like tennis authorities bending their own rules to ensure the participation of their defending men's champion and the world number one, a significant draw and money-spinner.

It appears to be one rule for him and one for ordinary citizens of Victoria who have missed seeing new grandchildren, attending weddings or seeing spouses after being placed under some of the world's most severe COVID-19-related lockdowns. Djokovic's breezy tone in confirming he'd play at a tournament he's won nine times must feel like a kick in the guts for those Victorians who followed the rules and missed out.

Why the secrecy?

Of course, this may not be fair on the Serbian. After all, we're told that he and a handful of others were granted the exemption after their applications were anonymized and assessed by medical professionals. Given that we know he hasn't had the vaccine by virtue of his application, it's quite possible he's had COVID-19 in recent weeks or months. It's certainly the most plausible way a top level athlete could meet the criteria for exemption.

In which case, why not say that? While everyone is entitled to keep their medical history private, there's no shame in having contracted the virus. 

DW's Matt Pearson
DW's Matt Pearson

Well, in Djokovic's case, perhaps there is. He's long been prickly about the notion that players should be vaccinated to travel the world to play in tournaments and often espoused deeply questionable views about "natural" fixes for the virus and other ailments.

Not the first time

If his comments and attitude over the past couple of years haven't shown Djokovic to be someone opposed to vaccination, or, more bluntly, someone who put's his own needs and desires over those of society, the 2020 Adria Tour is the smoking gun.

Last June, before any vaccines had been released, Djokovic organized a tournament in Serbia and Croatia attended by many top players. He and many other players predictably caught COVID-19 after partying and being pictured in close contact with each other. Who cares who else is getting on that plane home?

"I am so deeply sorry our tournament has caused harm," Djokovic said at the time. It feels like that sympathy was for himself, rather than the effects of his actions.

If Djokovic doesn't believe in vaccines, or modern medicine more generally, that is — for now — up to him, though some countries are justifiably beginning to question that notion when it comes to COVID-19. And if authorities grant him permission to play, there's no reason for him not to.

But sportspeople usually want to be adored for their legacy to hold firm. It certainly seems true of Djokovic. His record of 20 Grand Slam titles means his sporting status is assured. But unless he can reveal a legitimate reason for an exemption that causes frustration, anguish and anger to tennis fans and the general public, his status as a decent human is not. 

Edited by: Michael da Silva