Novak Djokovic to defend Australian Open title after receiving medical exemption

World No 1 on his way to Melbourne, where he aims to win the tournament for a record-extending 10th time

Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Novak Djokovic will defend his Australian Open title later this month after receiving a medical exemption from getting vaccinated against Covid-19, the world No 1 announced on Tuesday.

There had been serious doubts as to whether Djokovic, 34, would compete at the first Grand Slam of the season. He has refused to reveal his vaccination status and recently withdrew from Serbia's ATP Cup team, who are competing in Australia. He had also said previously that he was unsure whether he would play in the Grand Slam due to concerns over Australia's quarantine rules.

However, the 20-time Grand Slam champion posted a photo of himself at the airport to confirm that he is travelling Down Under, where he will bid to win the Australian Open for a record-extending 10th time.

"I’ve spent fantastic quality time with my loved ones over the break and today I’m heading Down Under with an exemption permission," Djokovic wrote on Instagram. "Let’s go 2022!

"I am ready to live and breathe tennis in the next few weeks of competition. Thanks everyone for the support."

Organisers of the Australian Open, which starts on January 17, had stipulated that all participants must be vaccinated against the coronavirus or have a medical exemption granted by an independent panel of experts.

Tennis Australia said last month the panel would consist of doctors from the fields of immunology, infectious disease and general practice and that the move was agreed in conjunction with the Victoria Department of Health.

Applicants who pass an initial stage will be subject to a second review conducted by a government-appointed panel before the application is submitted to the Australian Immunisation Register.

"Djokovic applied for a medical exemption which was granted following a rigorous review process involving two separate independent panels of medical experts," Tennis Australia said in a statement.

Tournament director Craig Tiley last week confirmed a number of players had been granted exemptions, without naming Djokovic, while explaining the process involved.

"There are two medical panels that assess any application, and they assess it in a blind way. They don't know who the applicant is," he told reporters.

"Against the ATAGI [Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation] guidelines, an exemption gets granted or not. The reason for granting that exemption remains private, between the panel and the applicant."

He said on Tuesday there had to have been a "genuine reason" to grant an exemption.

"Central to this process was that the decisions were made by independent medical experts and that every applicant was given due consideration," he said.

Novak Djokovic's 20 Grand Slam titles - in pictures

Djokovic has previously expressed his opposition to the Covid-19 vaccine and his father Srdjan said in late November that his son would probably not play in Melbourne, accusing the organisers of "blackmail".

Government officials in Victoria state, which hosts the Australian Open, had been adamant for months that only vaccinated players would be able to play the tournament.

"They're the rules. Medical exemptions are just that – it's not a loophole for privileged tennis players," the state's Deputy Premier James Merlino said last month.

Djokovic is indisputably the greatest male player in Australian Open history. The Serb won his first major title at Melbourne Park in 2008 before three in a row from 2011 to 2013. He went back-to-back again in 2015 and 2016 and is now aiming to make it four in succession having won the event every year since 2019.

Rafael Nadal began his season by playing in the doubles alongside Jaume Munar at the Melbourne Summer Set. Getty Images

Given his dominance at the tournament, Djokovic will be favourite to once again lift the trophy and become the most decorated male Grand Slam champion of all time. He currently shares the record with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the latter of whom was also a doubt for the Australian Open, although not for vaccination reasons.

Nadal, 35, has been making his way back from a long-term foot injury and said at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi that he could not "guarantee" his participation in Melbourne.

That was further complicated when the Spaniard tested positive for Covid-19 shortly after leaving the UAE, but the former world No 1 is in Australia and has been competing in the doubles at the Melbourne 250. He will start his singles campaign at the same tournament in the second round later this week.

Federer, meanwhile, is still sidelined having undergone a third knee surgery late last year and the 40-year-old Swiss is not expected to return to the tour until the middle of the year.

Updated: January 07, 2022, 12:21 PM