Novak Djokovic to defend Australian Open tennis title after exemption from COVID-19 vaccination

Novak Djokovic ended speculation over his Australian Open title defence by announcing on Tuesday that he would compete at the tennis season's opening Grand Slam event after receiving a medical exemption from getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

The world No. 1, who had declined to reveal his vaccination status, said previously that he was unsure whether he would compete at the Jan. 17-30 tournament in Melbourne due to concerns over Australia's quarantine rules.

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

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

The organisers issued a statement later on Tuesday to confirm Djokovic will be allowed to compete and is on his way to Australia.

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

"One of those was the Independent Medical Exemption Review Panel appointed by the Victorian Department of Health. They assessed all applications to see if they met the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation guidelines.''

Tennis Australia said the process included the redaction of personal information to ensure privacy for all applicants. That means Djokovic was not obliged to make his exemption public.

Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said "fair and independent protocols were established for assessing medical exemption applications that will enable us to ensure Australian Open 2022 is safe and enjoyable for everyone.''

Tiley on Wednesday said 26 players or support staff made anonymous applications for a medical exemption, although only a "handful'' were granted. He said Djokovic was treated no differently to anyone.

"... Seventy-five to 80% of those that apply for medical exemption, it was not granted,'' Tiley told Melbourne's 3AW radio. Djokovic "went through that process and it's completely legitimate application and process.''

Victoria state Deputy Premier James Merlino last month insisted the medical exemptions would not be "a loophole for privileged tennis players.''

"It is a medical exemption in exceptional circumstances if you have an acute medical condition,'' Merlino said at the time.

Jaala Pulford, the state's acting minister for sports, on Wednesday said "no one is or will be receiving special treatment because of who they are or what they have achieved professionally."

"Lots of people in the Victorian community will find this to be a disappointing outcome, but the process is the process," Pulford said. "Nobody has had special treatment. The process is incredibly robust, it's de-identified and we are where we are, and so tennis can begin and we'll have a terrific event.''

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the 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."

The decision is being widely debated in a city where most people endured months of strict lockdowns and harsh travel restrictions at the height of the pandemic. Reaction on social media quickly turned to questions about the grounds for Djokovic's exemption, and what quarantine conditions he will have to meet.

He will avoid hotel quarantine upon arrival, with visitors to Australia who have medical exemptions for the vaccination treated the same as fully vaccinated people.

Reasons for exemptions can include an acute major medical condition, serious adverse reaction to a previous dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, or evidence of a COVID-19 infection within the previous six months.

Tiley said he wasn't aware of the grounds for Djokovic's exemption, adding: "The only way we could access that information is if an individual decides to share it.'' But, he said, it would be "helpful'' if Djokovic chose to explain.

"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 and would appreciate some answers to that.''

Djokovic's father, Srdjan, had told a Serbian television channel that his son would probably pull out of the major, saying Tennis Australia's stance on mandatory vaccination was tantamount to "blackmail."

Djokovic pulled out of the Serbia team for the ATP Cup in Sydney to raise further doubts over his participation in the year's first Grand Slam.

"I'm ready to live and breathe tennis in the next few weeks of competition. Thanks everyone for the support," Djokovic added in his post, which was accompanied by a picture of him in an airport.

He heads to Australia having trained in Marbella, Spain, over the past few days.

Djokovic has won a record nine Australian Open titles, including the past three, and is in a three-way tie on 20 majors with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on the all-time list.

Information from The Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.