No jab, no play mandate may sink Djokovic’s grand slam dream

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Tennis chiefs resisted a looming vaccine mandate for the Australian Open, fearing it could deter vaccine-hesitant champion Novak Djokovic in his pursuit of a record-breaking 21st grand slam title.

The Andrews government’s sweeping vaccine requirement for authorised workers will not affect international cricket and tennis players, but The Age has confirmed it is probable a separate vaccine mandate will be required for tennis stars to play in Melbourne this summer.

Novak Djokovic with Tennis Australia boss Craig Tiley at the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup in February.Credit:Getty Images

The government’s move came after Tennis Australia boss Craig Tiley spent months raising concerns about a mandate because of its potential to turn away of a group of top players who resist vaccination.

Mr Tiley has since become resigned to it and is cooperating with the government, according to four government and sports sources speaking anonymously to detail confidential negotiations.

Numerous top-line tennis stars, including world No.1 and nine-time Australian Open champion Djokovic – who would in Melbourne have another attempt to win a record 21st major title – have expressed doubts about COVID-19 vaccines. Tennis tournaments across the globe are yet to mandate vaccination for players.

In meetings to plan for COVID-safe sport, sporting chiefs including Mr Tiley, the AFL’s Gillon McLaughlin, the MCG’s Stuart Fox and top bureaucrat Simon Phemister quickly agreed jabs should be mandatory for public-facing staff and spectators.

But Mr Tiley was worried about the implications for one of Australia’s premier sporting events and the southern hemisphere’s only grand slam. However, in recent weeks he has dropped his opposition to what two government sources said was the strong likelihood Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton would only permit vaccinated players.

“Tiley said we won’t get star players and the state government effectively said ‘suck it up’,” a source with direct knowledge of the negotiations said. “They capitulated.”

Australian coach Craig O’Shannessy, a tennis strategist who was part of Djokovic’s coaching team between 2017-19, said a mandate was “the right move on many layers.”

“It’s Novak’s decision if he wants to get vaccinated. It’s his choice to participate in the Open if there is a mandate,” he said.

Neither the ATP men’s tour nor women’s WTA have stated support for mandatory vaccines, but both strongly encourage players to be inoculated. Last month, the ATP estimated 50 per cent of its players were vaccinated while the WTA estimated its figure was about 60 per cent. In late July, prominent tennis journalist Jon Wertheim reported a coach’s belief the figure was closer to 30 per cent.

A spokesperson for the ATP said the science was settled and being jabbed would help reduce the risk of missing a tournament due to being deemed a close contact. “While we respect everyone’s right to free choice, we also believe that each player has a role to play in helping the wider group achieve a safe level of immunity,” the spokesperson said.

Greek star Stefanos Tsitsipas voiced concerns about coronavirus vaccines. Credit:Getty

Players have been holding virtual meetings with Tennis Australia over the weekend. British player Andy Murray in August predicted “pretty long, hard conversations” between players and officials and the potential for unvaccinated players to be forced into isolation while vaccinated players would be free to train leading up to the tournament.

Open organisers will be hoping Professor Sutton creates a quarantine avenue for participation in the tournament for vaccine-hesitant players including Djokovic and the two men who sit behind him in the world rankings – Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas, though Tsitsipas recently had a change of heart.

Some players who distrust vaccines have said they would consider being inoculated if it became a condition of entry in a tournament.

Top-10 women Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka have both said they are worried about vaccines, but it is Djokovic whose stance has stoked the most public attention.

The 34-year-old is the king of Melbourne Park. He has won eight of the 11 Open titles from 2011 and has stated that Melbourne is his favourite slam. Because he lost to Medvedev at the US Open this year – depriving him of a clean sweep of 2021’s slams – he remains level with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on 20 major wins.

Margaret Court Arena was a crowd-free zone during last year’s Open, including this match between Yulia Putintseva and Elina Svitolina, who has expressed concerns about vaccines.Credit:Getty Images

Despite Djokovic’s success, he is a polarising figure among Victorians who have long adored the more genteel pair of Federer and Nadal. The Serbian was criticised for hosting a tournament in June last year at which he was filmed dancing at a nightclub and he and other players contracted COVID-19. Crowds at Melbourne Park often show an allegiance towards Djokovic’s opponent, though their motive is at least partly driven by hopes for a long match rather than a quick straight-sets victory that Djokovic commonly delivers.

It’s for this reason the Andrews government would be unlikely to resile from a public battle that pitted Djokovic against Premier Daniel Andrews enforcing tough measures to protect Victorians.

Former Australian tennis player turned coach and analyst Darren Cahill said the Andrews government’s authorised worker mandate may foreshadow its decisions on the Australian Open. “I know this relates to Victorian sports athletes & teams but certainly the first sign where things may be heading for tennis players coming for the 2022 Australian Open,” he tweeted.

Tennis players are individual contractors and the sport does not have team or union-based structures to push a coordinated vaccine drive among players. More than 70 per cent of golfers on the US tour are vaccinated and more than 90 per cent of players in the US-based leagues including the NFL and WNBA have been jabbed.

There is no data on the overall vaccination coverage of AFL players, but North Melbourne announced their rate was 92 per cent last month. The AFL on Friday wrote to clubs informing them about their obligations under the new authorised worker mandate.

The Victorian government’s stance on mandatory jabs was made clear on Friday when it instituted a public-health direction to force 1 million authorised workers to get a vaccine by October 15 to continue working on-site.

An Andrews government spokesman said national cabinet and the Commonwealth would set rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated returned travellers, but rules for the Ashes cricket test and Australian Open were still being decided.

“Other vaccination requirements for the Australian Open and other events will be considered by [the Victorian public-health unit] as required,” he said.

Mr Andrews last month flagged attendees as well as staff at major events would probably need to be vaccinated, saying “if you’re going to deny people entry on the basis of their vaccination status, well, the person pouring the beer has to be vaccinated too”.

Proving vaccination status to enter sporting matches will probably first be trialled at the NBL or A-League which begin in late November and December. The more high-profile events will begin with the Boxing Day test and roll into the tennis and Big Bash.

The Health Department did not respond to requests for comment and Mr Tiley declined to be interviewed.

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