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Djokovic leaves Australia but debate goes on in vaccine saga

·3-min read

Australia sent Novak Djokovic home, but opinion remains divided worldwide on the No. 1 men's tennis player and whether he should have been allowed to compete in the Australian Open despite not being vaccinated against COVID-19.

At a tennis center in Phoenix on Sunday, employee Stan Taylor said the lobby was abuzz with just one question as players arrived: “What do you think about Novak Djokovic?"

There was no consensus on whether the No. 1 men's player had tried to game the system in seeking an exemption to Australia's strict vaccination rules or had the right to defend his title at the Open. In the end, the country's immigration minister revoked his visa on public interest grounds, and Djokovic was deported Sunday.

Taylor said he knows Djokovic has favored unconventional approaches all his life, but he wanted to see the tennis star display leadership in the polarizing COVID-19 vaccine debate.

“I love to watch him do battle,” said Taylor, who lives in Phoenix and has closely followed the saga. “I’ve watched him snatch victory from the mouth of defeat. .... So he loves the game, but this thing was not something to get on the soapbox about. He chose the wrong fight, and he lost.”

Djokovic received an exemption to vaccination rules to play in the Australian Open, based on a previous coronavirus infection. But upon arrival, border officials said the exemption was not valid and moved to deport him — sparking a 10-day legal battle and an ongoing political drama.

Djokovic has overwhelming support from his home country of Serbia, whose president said Australia embarrassed itself and urged his countryman to return where he would be welcomed.

The tennis player has also been held up as a hero by some in the anti-vaccine movement. One protester raised a poster in support of the tennis star at a rally in the Netherlands on Sunday.

Others were quick to criticize. One of Italy’s greatest tennis players, Adriano Panatta, called Djokovic's expulsion from Australia “the most natural epilogue of this affair.”

“I don’t see how Australia could have granted the visa. He committed big errors, he created an international case when he could have done without that,” Panatta said to the Italian news agency LaPresse.

French tennis player Alize Cornet, meanwhile, expressed sympathy while reserving judgment.

“I know too little to judge the situation,” she posted on Twitter. “What I know is that Novak is always the first one to stand up for the players. But none of us stood for him. Be strong.”

British player Andy Murray said he hoped that such a situation wouldn't be repeated at the next tournament.

At this stage, Djokovic could still play in the next Grand Slam tournament, the French Open in May-June — if virus rules don't change before then. Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu confirmed earlier this month that Djokovic would qualify for a “health bubble” that allows unvaccinated players to train and play.

The same could be true for Wimbledon. England has allowed exemptions from various coronavirus regulations for visiting athletes, if they remain at their accommodation when not competing or training. The U.S. Tennis Association, which runs the U.S. Open, has said it will follow whatever rules are set out by the federal, state and local governments when it comes to vaccination status.

A Djokovic appearance at those tournaments certainly would attract those who want to see great players in action, said Dillon McNamara, who runs a tennis academy in Las Vegas.

"I’m not a Novak Djokovic fan at all ... but I would have really liked to see him play,” he said, arguing the Australian Open could have put measures in place to keep the tournament safe beyond barring the unvaccinated.

Perhaps there is only one thing everyone can agree on. As Murray put it: “The situation has not been good all round for anyone.”

___

Associated Press writers Joseph Wilson in Barcelona, Spain; Howard Fendrich in Washington; Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia; Rob Harris and Sylvia Hui in London; Jerome Pugmire in Paris; and Frances D'Emilio in Rome contributed to this story.

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