Djokovic out, but vaccine debate remains at Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — To some, it seemed like a cloud had been lifted from the Australian Open. For others, Novak Djokovic was still almost palpable, the name on everyone’s lips on the opening day of the first major tennis tournament of the year.

Djokovic left Australia on Sunday evening when he failed in his legal challenge to overturn his visa cancellation due to his lack of a COVID-19 vaccination. His flight from Melbourne landed in Dubai early on Monday just as the first games of the tournament began.

As the No. 1-ranked men’s player and three-time defending champion, Djokovic would have been the tournament’s star attraction. In absentia, he still wielded outsized influence on opening day.

When Serbian Davis Cup teammate Dusan Lajovic defeated Hungary’s Marton Fucsovics in a tight five-set match, a Serbian fan immediately tweeted “Dusan Lajovic avenged his Serbian brother by knocking out Martin Fucsovics”.

Fucsovics had angered Djokovic’s supporters before the tournament when he was quoted in the media criticizing Djokovic’s unvaccinated status and his decision to travel to Australia.

Djokovic received a waiver from vaccination rules to play at the Australian Open, based on a coronavirus infection in mid-December. But upon his arrival, border officials declared the exemption invalid and decided to deport him, sparking an 11-day legal battle and ongoing political drama.

After his victory at Melbourne Park, Lajovic displayed a Serbian flag emblazoned with Djokovic’s image and the words ‘like it or not, the greatest of all time’.

Lajovic said denying Djokovic the chance to defend his Australian Open title would only make him more determined to become the greatest tennis player of all time.

“I think the way they dealt with it was terribly wrong. I think the decision itself was terribly wrong, and also the reason why they did it is also terribly wrong for me,” Lajovic said. “I hope that in the future he will be the best tennis player in history and that this will only be seen as a setback in his path.”

Coach and analyst Darren Cahill told Australian television “players are relieved” that Djokovic’s departure has brought attention to tennis.

Former world No. 1s manager Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt and Simona Halep told the Nine Network “there is a cloud hanging over the players”.

“I hated the exemption he had because I think that exemption is really for people who want to get vaccinated and can’t get vaccinated because they’ve had COVID in the last three or six months. , and Novak never wanted to be vaccinated.”

Australian Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has dismissed Serbian President Alexander Vucic’s claim that Djokovic was mentally and physically abused in Australia.

“I make no apologies for the enforcement here in Australia around our border protection policies which have contributed to our security,” Frydenberg said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re the No. 1 tennis player in the world or Betty from Utah, if you’re not vaccinated, the same rules apply.”

About 50 people gathered for a peaceful rally outside the Melbourne Park complex on Monday night in the shadow of the Rod Laver Arena, to protest Djokovic’s expulsion.

One of the pro-choice campaigners held a hand-painted banner saying Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison should be ashamed of the decision. Another proudly displayed another banner that read: Expel the Australian (government) for inciting international contempt and ridicule of this nation.

Opinion remained divided around the world on whether Djokovic should have been allowed to compete at the Australian Open despite not having been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Djokovic has overwhelming support from his home country Serbia, whose president said Australia had embarrassed themselves. He was also presented as a hero by some members of the anti-vaccine movement.

Others were quick to criticize. One of Italy’s greatest tennis players, Adriano Panatta, has called Djokovic’s expulsion from Australia “the most natural end to this affair”.

French tennis player Alize Cornet, meanwhile, expressed sympathy while reserving judgement.

“I know too little to judge the situation,” she posted on Twitter. “What I know is that Novak is always the first to defend the players. But none of us defended him. Be strong.”

It’s unclear where Djokovic will play next, and he’s the defending champion at the next scheduled major tournament, the French Open in May-June.

A French member of parliament has said a new law that will exclude unvaccinated people from sports venues, restaurants and other public places will apply to anyone wishing to play at Roland Garros.

Monday’s comments from Christophe Castaner, a former member of President Emmanuel Macron‘s government, and a tweet from the sports minister on Sunday evening marked a reversal of earlier plans to create a “bubble” around the planned French Open. from late May to June.

“Mr. Djokovic has nothing to do if he does not respect a rule that applies to spectators, ball boys, professionals who go to work in the shops of Roland-Garros,” Castaner said on television. BFM.

Djokovic is also the titleholder at Wimbledon. England has allowed exemptions from various coronavirus regulations for visiting athletes, if they stay in their accommodation when not competing or training. The US Tennis Association, which administers the US Open, said it would follow government rules regarding vaccination status.

There may be only one thing that everyone can agree on. As three-time major winner Andy Murray said: “It hasn’t been good for anyone.”

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McMorran reported from Wellington, New Zealand. Associated Press writer Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.

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