Novak Djokovic medical exemption sparks Australian Open debate

Getty Images
0 Comments

BRISBANE, Australia — With so much focus on getting the medical exemption he needed to fly into Melbourne to defend his Australian Open title, it seems Novak Djokovic may not have paid enough to attention to his visa.

The medical exemption allowed the top-ranked Djokovic entry to the tournament regardless of his vaccination status for COVID-19, a subject he has declined to clarify amid months of speculation he could miss the season-opening major unless he can prove he’s had two doses of a coronavirus vaccine.

But it wasn’t everything he needed to enter Australia, which has strict border regulations in place for the pandemic.

Melbourne’s The Age newspaper reported that Djokovic had landed at Tullamarine Airport, but his entry was delayed because of a mistake with his visa application. Two hours later, local media reported he still hadn’t cleared the border.

Speculation of a possible issue with the visa emerged while Djokovic was in transit and escalated with mixed messages from federal and state lawmakers.

Djokovic’s revelation on social media that he was heading to Australia seeking a record 21st major title sparked some debate and plenty of headlines, with critics questioning what grounds the nine-time Australian Open champion could have for the exemption and backers defending his right to privacy and freedom of choice.

Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley defended the “completely legitimate application and process” and insisted there was no special treatment for Djokovic.

The Victoria state government-mandated that only fully vaccinated players, staff, fans and officials could enter Melbourne Park when the tournament starts on Jan. 17.

Only 26 people connected with the tournament applied for a medical exemption and, Tiley said, only a “handful” — estimated at about five — were granted.

The names, ages and nationalities of applicants were redacted for privacy reasons before each application for a vaccine exemption was assessed by two independent panels of experts, and Tiley noted Djokovic is under no obligation to reveal his reason for seeking one.

But, he suggested, it would be “helpful” if Djokovic chose to explain it to a Melbourne public still getting over months of lockdowns and severe travel restrictions imposed at the height of the pandemic.

“I would encourage him to talk to the community about it,” Tiley said. “We have been through a very tough period over the last two years.”

Among the reasons allowed for those applying for a vaccination exemption can include acute major medical conditions, serious adverse reaction to a previous dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, or evidence of a COVID-19 infection within the previous six months.

Jaala Pulford, Victoria state’s acting minister for sports, acknowledged in the Djokovic case that lots of people in the community “will find this to be a disappointing outcome,” but added: “Nobody has had special treatment. The process is incredibly robust.”

Concerns about Djokovic’s visa status took a while to circulate.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison initially said the medical exemption decision was a matter for the government of Victoria, where Melbourne is the state capital.

“They have provided (Djokovic) with an exemption to come to Australia, and so we then act in accordance with that,” Morrison said. “States provide exemptions for people to enter on those basis, and that’s been happening for the last two years.”

Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews then clarified in a statement that the Australian Border Force would make the final determination.

“While the Victorian government and Tennis Australia may permit a non-vaccinated player to compete in the Australian Open, it is the Commonwealth government that will enforce our requirements at the Australian border,” Andrews said. “If an arriving individual is not vaccinated, they must provide acceptable proof that they cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons to be able to access the same travel arrangement as fully vaccinated travelers.”

When asked again about Djokovic’s case, Morrison added: “If that evidence is insufficient, then he won’t be treated any different to anyone else and he’ll be on the next plane home.”

“And so if medical exemptions had been provided by medical professionals and that’s been furnished to him as a proviso for him to get on that plane, well, that will have to stack up when he arrives in Australia,” the Prime Minister said.

Later still, Pulford, the Victoria state politician, posted on Twitter to say “the federal government has asked if we will support Novak Djokovic’s application to enter Australia.”

She said the state government would not be providing individual application support, adding in a second post: “We’ve always been clear on two points: visa approvals are a matter for the Federal Government, and medical exemptions are a matter for doctors.”

Djokovic tested positive for the coronavirus in 2020 after he played in a series of exhibition matches that he organized in Serbia and Croatia without social distancing amid the pandemic.

It’s not inconceivable that the 34-year-old Djokovic, who finished one win short of a calendar-year Grand Slam in 2021 when he lost the U.S. Open final to Daniil Medvedev, could have been infected again.

The decision on whether to elaborate now is in Djokovic’s court.

Fernando Verdasco accepts 2-month doping ban

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

LONDON – Former top-10 player Fernando Verdasco accepted a voluntary provisional doping suspension of two months after testing positive for a medication for ADHD, the International Tennis Integrity Agency announced.

Verdasco, who turned 39 this month, said he was taking methylphenidate as medication prescribed by his doctor to treat ADHD but forgot to renew his therapeutic use exemption for the drug. The integrity agency said Verdasco has now been granted an exemption by the World Anti-Doping Agency moving forward.

He tested positive at an ATP Challenger tournament in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in February.

The integrity agency said in a news release that it “accepts that the player did not intend to cheat, that his violation was inadvertent and unintentional, and that he bears no significant fault or negligence for it,” and so what could have been a two-year suspension was reduced to two months.

Verdasco will be eligible to compete on Jan. 8.

The Spaniard is a four-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist, reaching that stage most recently in 2013 at Wimbledon, where he blew a two-set lead in a five-set loss to eventual champion Andy Murray.

Verdasco reached a career-best ranking of No. 7 in April 2009 and currently is No. 125.

Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov give Canada 1st Davis Cup title

Peter van den Berg-USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

MALAGA, Spain — Felix Auger-Aliassime fell to his back behind the baseline, then waited for teammates to race off Canada’s bench and pile on top of him.

A few minutes later, the Canadians finally could lift the Davis Cup.

“I think of us all here, we’ve dreamt of this moment,” Auger-Aliassime said.

Canada won the title for the first time, beating Australia behind victories from Denis Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime.

Auger-Aliassime secured the winning point when he downed Alex de Minaur 6-3, 6-4 after Shapovalov opened the day by rolling past Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-2, 6-4.

Seven years after leading Canada to the top of junior tennis, Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov and their teammates finally got to lift the biggest team trophy in their sport.

“We wanted to grow up and be part of the team and try to help the country win the first title,” Shapovalov said, “so everything is just so surreal right now.”

Shapovalov had dropped both his singles matches this week and needed treatment on his back during a three-set loss in the semifinals to Lorenzo Sonego of Italy that lasted 3 hours, 15 minutes. But the left-hander moved quickly around the court, setting up angles to put away winners while racing to a 4-0 lead in the first set.

Auger-Aliassime then finished off his superb second half of the season by completing a perfect week in Spain. He twice had kept the Canadians alive after Shapovalov dropped the opening singles match, and he replaced his weary teammate to join Vasek Pospisil for the decisive doubles point.

This time, Auger-Aliassime made sure the doubles match wouldn’t even be necessary. After his teammates poured onto the court to celebrate with him, they got up and danced around in a circle.

Canada had reached the final only once, falling to host Spain in Madrid in 2019, when Rafael Nadal beat Shapovalov for the clinching point after Auger-Aliassime had lost in the opening match.

But with Auger-Aliassime having since surged up the rankings to his current spot at No. 6, the Canadians are a much more formidable team now. They won the ATP Cup in January and finally added the Davis Cup crown to the junior Davis Cup title Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov led them to in 2015.

Australia was trying for its 29th title and first since current captain Lleyton Hewitt was part of the title-winning team in 2003.

But it was finally time for the Canadians, who were given a wild card into the field when Russia was suspended because of its invasion of Ukraine.

“Look, I think we were very close today,” de Minaur said. “Just wait until the next time we get the same matchup. Hopefully we can get the win and prove that we can do it.”

But Canada will be tough to beat as long as Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov play.

Shapovalov is just 23 and Auger-Aliassime 22, but both already have been Grand Slam semifinalists and Auger-Aliassime ended 2022 as one of the hottest players on the ATP Tour. He won all of his four titles this year, including three straight weeks in October.

He also beat Carlos Alcaraz in the previous Davis Cup stage in September, just after the Spaniard had won the U.S. Open to rise to No. 1 in the rankings. That victory helped send the Canadians into the quarterfinals, which they started this week by edging Germany.

“They’re not kids anymore, that’s for sure. Not after today – well not after the last couple of years,” said Pospisil, the team veteran at 32. “They’ve been crushing it.”