Tennis: Djokovic got no 'special favours' on vaccine exemption, says Aussie Open boss Tiley

The decision to grant an exception to Novak Djokovic was above board, said Tennis Australia boss Craig Tiley. PHOTO: AFP

MELBOURNE (AFP, REUTERS) - Novak Djokovic received no "special favours" to play at the opening Grand Slam of the year, Tennis Australia boss Craig Tiley insisted on Wednesday (Jan 5) as the move to grant the Serb a medical exemption sparked fury.

The nine-time Australian Open champion announced late on Tuesday that he was en route to Melbourne with "an exemption permission", culminating a drawn-out saga over whether he would defend his title.

All participants at the tournament, which starts on Jan 17, must be vaccinated against Covid-19 or have the exemption, which is assessed by two panels of independent experts.

The world No. 1 has repeatedly refused to confirm if he has been inoculated and previously expressed opposition to the coronavirus vaccine.

The decision to grant Djokovic an exemption sparked sharp criticism in Australia, where more than 90 per cent of people over 16 have had two vaccine doses against Covid-19. Melbourne had the world's longest cumulative lockdown to contain the virus, and an outbreak of the Omicron variant has sent case numbers to record levels.

"I think it's disgusting. I think he should have made his mind up before now and it shouldn't be a last minute decision to get him in," Melbourne resident Ron Wilson told AFP on Wednesday.

Other city residents were more sympathetic with Morteza Yari saying: "I think as long as the exemption is valid and they have valid reasons, I don't see a problem with that."

Tiley insisted the decision was above board and defended the integrity of the process, run by the national and Victorian state governments, that reviewed the player's application.

He revealed 26 players or their support staff from the 3,000 or so travelling to Australia had asked for an exemption, and only a few were successful.

"Any person who met those conditions has been allowed to come in. There's been no special favour. There's been no special opportunity granted to Novak," Tiley told Channel Nine television.

Acting Victorian Sports Minister Jaala Pulford told a media conference: "I think lots of people in the Victorian community will find this to be a disappointing outcome.

"But the process is the process; nobody has had special treatment. The process is incredibly robust. It's de-identified and we are where we are, and so the tennis can begin."

Vaccine opposition

Tiley added that the reasons for exemptions included previous adverse response to vaccines, recent major surgery or myocarditis or certified evidence of a Covid infection in the previous six months. It is not clear whether this was the case with Djokovic, though he did contract the virus in 2020.

Tiley previously said the two panels assessed each exemption without knowing the identity of the applicant, with reasons for granting approval remaining confidential.

Djokovic expressed his opposition to the Covid-19 vaccine in April 2020 when it was suggested they might be obligatory so tournament play could resume.

"Personally I am not pro-vaccines," said Djokovic said at the time. "I would not like it for someone to compel me to be vaccinated so I can travel."

Some players expressed surprise with the ruling, including British doubles player Jamie Murray who said at the ATP Cup in Sydney: "I don't know what to say about that really.

"I think if it was me that wasn't vaccinated, I wouldn't be getting an exemption."

Tiley said he understood the community being concerned.

"People this morning would wake up to that news (and I) would completely understand and empathise with them being completely upset," he said.

"Really at the end of the day... not only was the process appropriately followed but the conditions in which any tennis player comes in - no matter who they are - conditions put on tennis and put on anyone coming into Australia is by the Australian government."

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