Novak Djokovic says he will not defend his Wimbledon or French Open titles if the tournaments require mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for competitors.
“Yes, that is the price that I’m willing to pay,” the world No.1 told the BBC when asked if he would sacrifice participating in the competitions.
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“I say that everybody has the right to choose or act or say or feel whatever is appropriate for them.”
The 20-times major champion is set to return to competitive action at an ATP tournament in Dubai next week for the first time since he was deported ahead of the Australian Open, the year’s first tennis grand slam.
Another win at Melbourne Park, where Djokovic has won nine titles, could have taken him to a men’s record 21 major wins.
But instead it was his long-time rival Rafael Nadal who nudged ahead by lifting the trophy.
Now, he’s sought to distance himself from the anti-vaccination movement.
“I have never said I’m part of that movement,” he said.
“It’s really unfortunate that there has been this kind of misconception and wrong conclusion based upon something that I completely disagree with.
“I was never against vaccination,” he said, adding that he took vaccines as a child.
“But I’ve always supported the freedom to choose what you put in your body.”
“I understand the consequences of my decision.”
As an elite athlete – and number one ranked player – Dkojovic says he is acutely aware of everything he puts into his body, even down to the water he drinks.
In the interview, Djokovic said he is not critical of any COVID-19 vaccine.
“Vaccination is probably the biggest effort that was made when half the planet was vaccinated and I respect that,” he said.
But admits his stance will cost him more than just the Australian Open.
“I was prepared not to go,” he said.
“And I understand that not being vaccinated today, I’m not able to travel to most of the tournaments.”
Asked if he’s prepared to forego the title of greatest player, Djokovic’s answer was simple:
Djokovic addressed his deportation from Australia after some had suggested it was convenient he had tested positive for COVID in mid-December.
The timing allowed him to be granted a medical exemption to attend the tournament.
Djokovic said: “I understand that there is a lot of criticism, and I understand that people come out with different theories on how lucky I was or how convenient it is.
“But no-one is lucky and convenient of getting COVID. Millions of people have and are still struggling with COVID around the world.
“So I take this very seriously, I really don’t like someone thinking I’ve misused something or in my own favour, in order to, you know, get a positive PCR test and eventually go to Australia.
“I was really sad and disappointed with the way it all ended for me in Australia. It wasn’t easy.
“I was not deported from Australia on the basis that I was not vaccinated, or I broke any rules or that I made an error in my visa declaration.
“The reason why I was deported from Australia was because the Minister for Immigration used his discretion to cancel my visa based on his perception that I might create some anti-vax sentiment in the country or in the city, which I completely disagree with.”
Earlier in February, Djokovic sat down with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and spoke publicly for the first time about the drama.
He thanked the president and fans for their support “during the unfortunate events in Australia” ahead of the grand slam.
“Although I was alone in detention in Australia and faced many problems and challenges, I did not feel lonely,” he said.
“I had huge support primarily from my family, all of the close people in my life, entire Serbian nation, many people with good intentions from the region and the world.”
Visa system questioned
The Djokovic visa saga may been avoided if the federal government’s promised digital passenger declaration system was in place, the home affairs secretary says.
Mike Pezzullo said the system would have given officials near-instant access to supporting documentation by the tennis star to assess whether he met Australia’s entry requirements – including vaccination exemptions.
Under the system, the department would have been able to discern Djokovic’s vaccination status and whether he had an exemption to enter the country unvaccinated before he arrived in Australia.
This means if Djokovic wasn’t able to provide the adequate supporting documentation about his vaccination status through the digital system, the airline would’ve been advised not to allow him to travel.
“If we had a time machine, and travelled back in time, a fully functional DPD with all of the parameters set to interrogate not just the declaration but supporting documents, it’s hypothetically possible, yes,” Mr Pezzullo said at a Senate estimates hearing.
Djokovic instead had his visa cancelled once he was in Australia by Immigration Minister Alex Hawke on the grounds it was in the public interest to do so.
The minister suggested the unvaccinated Serbian’s presence during the Australian Open could encourage residents to shirk isolation rules, given the tennis star’s admission of having previously done so, and foster “anti-vaccination sentiment”.
Labor senator Kristina Keneally questioned how the tennis No.1’s “anti-vaccine posture and public statements” weren’t able to be picked up by an immigration officer.
“Mr Djokovic – one of the most famous people on the planet and who has very strong anti-vaccination views – applies to come to one of the most famous events in the world, he tweets that he’s coming and has permission to come – at no point … did anyone think we should cancel his visa on character grounds?”
First assistant secretary of the department’s immigration program, Michael Willard, said the grounds for cancellation used by the minister were different to the grounds the visa was granted on.
“In this particular circumstance, the person granting the visa formed the view that the character test was met,” he told the hearing.
Mr Willard said two months and further events had passed from when Mr Djokovic’s visa was granted to when the visa was cancelled, giving rise to further evidence which was used to cancel the visa.
The department told Mr Hawke in a briefing the DPD would be rolled out in July 2021, but another briefing to Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews later said it would be ready in November 2021.
It will now come into operation at the end of this week.
– with AAP