DANIEL Andrews, the self-satisfied Premier of Victoria, has said it is doubtful that unvaccinated tennis players will be allowed to take part in the Australian Open in January.
Few are surprised by what Andrews said. It is entirely in keeping with his authoritarian response to Covid, which seems to get more dictatorial by the day. He is not alone among politicians. But like others in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, his policies seem to be reaching new heights of illiberalism.
Nine-times Australian Open winner and world No 1 Novak Djokovic, in particular, is not happy.
Djokovic first made his views about vaccination known some months ago. He believes it should be a personal choice, free of any pressure, let alone mandated. Last week he refused to answer questions about whether he has been vaccinated. He added: ‘It is a private matter and an inappropriate inquiry. People go too far these days in taking the liberty to ask questions and judge a person.’
I think it safe to say he has not been vaccinated.
Many sceptics are understandably pleased, and feel encouraged by Djokovic’s stance. It is not every day you find one of the world’s leading sportsmen on your side. It is a breath of fresh air after months of politicians and the media relentlessly urging everyone to be vaccinated, masked, distanced and tested, while those who express concern are often dismissed, demonised or censored.
But sceptics need to be cautious. Andrews’s statement puts Djokovic in a more difficult position than it might at first appear. Doubtless, Djokovic knows this himself.
One argument in support of Djokovic is simple but powerful: elite tennis players are some of the fittest people who have ever lived. They are at a vanishingly small risk of serious illness from Covid, let alone from dying from it. And at the highest level of the game, those who win and win regularly, do so by a very narrow margin. It is this small but vital difference between players’ performances which separates the very good from the exceptionally good, from the winners and legends.
It is to be expected, therefore, that Djokovic is uneasy. Other players and coaches agree. Former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash, for example, has voiced dismay about vaccinations and about the restrictions, bubbles and testing faced by players on tour. One unnamed female player, Cash said, had a blood clot after being vaccinated. Cash also expressed his worries when he was interviewed by TCW Defending Freedom editor Kathy Gyngell in August.
In April, Djokovic said: ‘My issue here with vaccines is if someone is forcing me to put something in my body. That I don’t want.’ For Djokovic, and for all top players, it is not just training and perfecting their skills which matters. They follow what we might call a ‘whole body’ approach. Close attention is paid to diet, to improve and safeguard fitness, strength and stamina. But perhaps most of all to gain the extra advantage which helps players win grand slams. Why add the worry that it all may be put at risk by a new and previously unproven vaccine, and one they don’t need?
If only it were that simple. Djokovic also has to consider his public image. Sponsors may be nervous, as will be the ATP, the governing body of men’s professional tennis. The ATP, and in women’s tennis the WTA, are emphasising the benefits of vaccination and attempting to reassure players. As with so many organisations, companies and governments, they fear damage to their reputation, even if what they are doing defies logic.
Djokovic has said he is unsure if he will play at the Australian Open. He knows his words carry some weight and will be hoping in this case that he can change minds. For now, it is perhaps the best – and only – tactic he has at his disposal, if he is to give himself a chance to win a tenth Australian Open without being vaccinated.
Stop Press: A leaked email from the Women’s Tennis Association suggests that unvaccinated players may be able to compete at the Australian Open provided they quarantine for two weeks on arrival. The Mirror has more.