The Djokovic Vaccination Charade

By Gabriël Moens
Gabriël Moens
Gabriël Moens
Gabriël A. Moens AM is an emeritus professor of law at the University of Queensland, and served as pro vice-chancellor and dean at Murdoch University. In 2003, Moens was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal by the prime minister for services to education. He has taught extensively across Australia, Asia, Europe, and the United States.
January 5, 2022Updated: January 6, 2022


The announcement that Novak Djokovic, the world’s number one ranked tennis player, had received a medical exemption from compulsory vaccination to enable him to participate in the Australian Open—since removed—was received in Australia with disbelief. Djokovic himself announced the news on social media on Tuesday, and Australians, including most sports commentators, reacted negatively to the information.

The federal government has since announced its decision to cancel Djokovic’s visa, ending his opportunity to chase his 10th victory at the Australian Open and, more importantly, the elusive 21st Grand Slam, which would trump the 20 Grand Slam victories of Federer and Nadal.

The initial reaction of disgust by Australians is understandable given the repeated reassurances of the Victorian government and the organisers of the Open that only vaccinated players would be allowed to play in this prestigious sporting event, the first Grand Slam of the new tennis season.

The Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, dismissing Djokovic’s nine Australian Open titles, reportedly said that the “only title that will protect you” is proof of full vaccination, which requires two vaccinations.

Djokovic has never disclosed his vaccination status, reiterating that his vaccine status was a private matter. While privacy is undoubtedly a vital personal interest, especially in times of global electronic surveillance, it becomes delicate when it is relied upon by a public person whose activities are constantly the subject of speculation and comment.

However, there was widespread speculation that he was unvaccinated, especially after failing to participate in the ATP Cup as a member of the Serbian team. This tennis competition was played in the first week of January.

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A Serbian tennis fan waves a flag as he awaits the arrival of Serbia’s tennis champion Novak Djokovic in Melbourne, Australia, on Jan. 6, 2022. (William West/AFP via Getty Images)

Tennis Australia was acting like Pontius Pilate by hiding behind two independent groups of experts who assess the applications for medical exemption of unvaccinated athletes who want to play in the Open. These bodies are The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) and the Independent Medical Review Panel, appointed by the Victorian Department of Health.

The Australian Open’s organisers claimed that only a small number of applications out of 26 players and support staff would be successful. These people would have to meet the most stringent criteria applied by the two independent bodies. If so, the question should be asked why precisely Djokovic was part of that illustrious small group of players, the members of which victoriously emerged with an exemption.

The exemption was questionable, for several reasons. First, Australians have been subjected to sometimes brutal, oppressive, arbitrary, and ever-changing rules for the better part of two years. They experienced lockdowns and border closures which prevented children from visiting their dying parents, barred the return of people to their home state, and stranded Australians overseas.

These oppressive COVID-19 rules have culminated in the effective creation of a two-tier Australia where the unvaccinated are banned from participating in most public activities and are forbidden to visit clubs, restaurants, libraries, festivals, and to attend sporting events like the Australian Open. So for them, the Djokovic exemption felt like a painful stab in the back or a slap in the face.

Second, the exemption revealed the duplicitous behaviour adopted by the authorities, including the Commonwealth and Victorian governments, and the organisers of the Open. Indeed, even in 2020, in the pre-vaccination era, celebrities were able to visit various parts of Australia, and sometimes interstate visitors were allowed into states where huge sporting events were held.

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An empty and closed Melbourne Cricket Ground is seen in Melbourne, Australia, on Sept. 3, 2021. (Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Third, the exemption constituted preferential treatment, which was not likely to have been extended to other athletes. Instead, it was a reminder that, in the prophetic language of George Orwell’s satire, “Animal Farm,” “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” The other applicants, whose application for a medical exemption was unsuccessful, may well agree with this sentiment.

The unequal treatment of applicants generates a fourth reason, which is that the aberrant and unprincipled granting of exemptions results in a demonstrable decline in the application of the “rule of law.” This concept engenders the idea of generality—that the law applies to everyone who is similarly situated—which means, in the context of the Australian Open, that all players should be treated equally. Of course, there were strenuous attempts, on the part of the authorities, to justify the exemption by seeking to emphasise that, under no circumstances, players had been given any advantage whatsoever. But for some people, those denials simply did not ring true.

The rule of law not only requires equality before the law but also transparency. In this context, the Tournament Director, Craig Tiley, indicated that stringent requirements must be met to receive an exemption, but there is no further credible information on what these criteria are.

Tiley did disclose that one of the criteria considered by the review panels was whether a player had contracted COVID-19 in the six months prior to the Open. But, although Djokovic had COVID-19 following his ill-fated attempt to organise the Adria Tennis Tournament in 2020, he contracted it in 2020, which clearly falls outside this six-month period and, hence, would not have been relevant to a consideration of his application.

The Premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, did not countermand the decision of the “independent” experts, thereby undermining his own statements made during the last couple of months. In fact, when the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, indicated in October 2021 that unvaccinated players would be welcomed to play in the Open, provided they spent 14 days in quarantine, Andrews made it clear that unvaccinated players would not be allowed to play. Yet on Djokovic, the two parties seemed to have swapped their standings, with Morrison now saying that nobody was above the rules.

By allowing Djokovic to play, the tournament could have gained a short-term benefit, but this whole charade has likely damaged the long-term credibility and reputation of the Open.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.