Novak Djokovic, the world’s #1 ranked men’s tennis player, has plunged Australia into a fierce and ugly debate after he revealed last night that he received a travel exemption to play in the 2022 Australian Open.

It’s not particularly clear on what basis the 34-year-old Serb, who has repeatedly expressed anti-vaccination sentiments and has refused to reveal his COVID-19 vaccination status, received his exemption. Australian Open organisers and the Victorian state government have confirmed the exemption and explained that a review found Djokovic had “a genuine medical condition that meets the criteria for an exemption”, although neither they nor Djokovic have revealed what that condition is.

This has caused a shitstorm online, with scores of Aussies furious about this decision – particularly as it seems to not only fly in the face of the health advice and previous statements from Victorian premier Dan Andrews – but one journo has gone farther than others.

“Everybody attending the Australian Open has a patriotic duty to boo Djokovic for the entirety of his stay,” ABC sports journalist Samantha Lewis tweeted late last night.

“This is an obscene decision and organisers should be f*cking ashamed of themselves. After everything we (and Victorians especially) have sacrificed and suffered over the past two years, it’s suddenly fine for [Djokovic] to waltz in and undermine our social contract and totally dismiss the point of it all?”

“If he has health issues that mean he can’t be vaccinated, he shouldn’t be coming to a country where COVID is out of control and people are waiting hours for basic testing.”

Sports reporter Bernie Coen has been similarly pointed about the decision, calling it a “farce”:

“Novak gets [an] exemption to play but some Aussies can’t even fly interstate to see dying loved ones. Fair dinkum disgraceful… a big up yours from sports officials and the [government] to Aussies to allow this.”

The decision is also hard to fathom in light of the other big international sporting event currently taking place in Australia this summer, The Ashes, where both the Australian and English teams were required to be fully vaccinated before they could travel to and around Australia for the test series.

As The Evening Standard’s Will Macpherson put it, “If I was an England cricketer subjected to an unnecessary quarantine to enter Australia, I would see Novax’s exemption as a slap in the face. Sure they won’t be the only ones.”

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The double standard doesn’t stop there. Comedian and TV star Dave Hughes has pointed out that, apparently unlike players, spectators at the Australian Open are required to be double vaxxed, joking that there’s “no jab, no entry”.

In short, people are furious. You do have to wonder what sort of reception Djokovic will indeed receive at the Open when it kicks off in just over a week…

Spectators at the 2021 Australian open wearing PPE. Crowds were turned away for five days during the tournament after a snap lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Image: The Independent

Of course, this isn’t a black and white situation. If Djokovic does indeed have a medical condition or other extenuating circumstances that would genuinely prevent him from being vaccinated, that changes the discussion somewhat. It might also change our perception of Djokovic.

As AFL legend Kevin Bartlett puts it, “Novak Djokovic is the greatest tennis player ever. Forget Laver, Agassi, Federer, Sampras, Nadal, McEnroe, Connors and Borg for Novak has won 20 Grand Slams and 87 titles and a billion dollars without us knowing he had a debilitating medical problem.”

Although, as The New York Times’ Ben Rothenberg argues, “what ‘acute major medical condition’… could a healthy No.1-ranked athlete have?”

The big issue here is the uncertainty and lack of clarity. What is actually wrong with Novak, what is his vaccination status, and why is he being so cagey about it? Moreover, why are the rules like this? Should they not be tougher, or clearer, or more consistent?

One of the biggest lessons that many of us haven’t learned over the last two years is that when it comes to COVID, consistency and clarity are paramount. Regardless of your take on Djokovic or vaccines more broadly, we can all agree that a lack of clarity and the rampant speculation that it generates doesn’t do anyone any favours.

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