Novak Djokovic and Kyrie Irving Prepare to Return Despite Rules Barring Unvaccinated Players - WSJ

The 20-time major winner and the Brooklyn Nets star, who have said they didn’t want to be vaccinated, are both expected to take the court this month at the Australian Open and in the NBA

Updated Jan. 4, 2022 2:47 pm ET

As the rest of the tennis elite boarded flights to Australia in recent weeks, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic sat at home waiting to know where he might be allowed to play next.

Meanwhile, halfway across the world, NBA star Kyrie Irving watched the Brooklyn Nets and wondered if, when or where he would be allowed to play his first game of the season. 

Now...

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As the rest of the tennis elite boarded flights to Australia in recent weeks, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic sat at home waiting to know where he might be allowed to play next.

Meanwhile, halfway across the world, NBA star Kyrie Irving watched the Brooklyn Nets and wondered if, when or where he would be allowed to play his first game of the season. 

Now two of the sports world’s most prominent vaccine skeptics have found exceptions to stringent rules and find themselves returning to competition at almost exactly the same time, even as the Omicron variant is leading to the latest wave of Covid-19 cases. 

Djokovic said on Tuesday that he had received an exemption to play in this month’s Australian Open despite rules the country and the tournament have put in place requiring players to be vaccinated against Covid-19 to participate.

Djokovic, who has said publicly that he didn’t want to be vaccinated, indicated that he had received an unspecified medical exemption to enter the country. He made the announcement in a social media post that showed him with his luggage on an airport tarmac, ready to fly to Australia, prompting plenty of frustration from locals who have spent much of the past two years under lockdown.

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

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In a bit of transcontinental symmetry, Djokovic’s unexpected trip to Australia coincides with Irving’s possible debut in Indianapolis on Wednesday, where the Nets are hoping their standoff with the NBA’s most valuable unvaccinated player officially ends. 

Djokovic and Irving are not the only unvaccinated professional athletes who happen to be huge stars. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said he was “immunized” and then admitted that he was unvaccinated in an extraordinary series of events after he tested positive for Covid and missed a game. He also led his team to the NFL’s best record and distinguished himself as the front-runner to win the league’s MVP award. 

The difference between Irving and the overwhelming majority of athletes who declined to get the shot, including Rodgers and Djokovic, is that his defiance meant he couldn’t do his job. Irving was banished by his own team and risked losing more than $15 million for refusing to comply with New York City’s indoor vaccine mandate. Since he couldn’t play for the Nets at home, the Nets decided he wouldn’t play anywhere. 

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Irving, who remained mostly silent with the exception of cryptic posts on social media during his absence, said recently that he respected their decision after he made his. 

Then the team backed down. Covid ripped through Brooklyn’s locker room as the Omicron variant slammed New York in December, and the Nets softened their position about paying a star not to work. Their plan to survive a Covid surge was to welcome back a proudly unvaccinated employee and effectively make Irving the NBA’s only part-time player. 

His return plans were immediately complicated. It took less than 24 hours for Irving to be sidelined by the league’s health and safety protocols. 

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As soon as he was cleared, Irving hit another snag: The Nets were playing at home. 

Wednesday’s game against the Pacers is his first chance to see the floor since coming back to work. He’s currently eligible for 22 of their remaining 47 games, but a prolonged Nets home stand toward the end of the regular season means he might go nearly a month before the playoffs having played exactly once. It’s unclear if that means he will be rested or rusty. It’s also unclear whether Irving’s availability next to Kevin Durant and James Harden will change the way the Nets strategize for the playoffs. 

But the temporary solution to the Irving saga was somehow more probable than Djokovic making it to Melbourne to chase a 10th Australian Open title. While he was able to comply with negative testing requirements to make it through last season—and win three Grand Slam tournaments along the way—Australia’s tougher policies in 2022 were always going to be a challenge. The tournament had insisted that no player, staff member, or fan would be admitted without being vaccinated.

Australian Open organizers said on Tuesday that Djokovic’s application for an exemption had been reviewed by a body called the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunization, which didn’t give any details on his case. Djokovic contracted and recovered from Covid in the summer of 2020. 

“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,” tournament director

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Craig Tiley said.  

Tiley added on Australian television’s “Today” Wednesday morning that 26 players made requests for exemptions and “a handful” were granted after a blind review.

“For tennis players, it was a process that goes above and beyond what anyone coming to Australia would have experienced,” he said.

While Djokovic is far from the biggest ratings draw in the sport—players such as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal remain more popular with television audiences—he would have been a glaring absence from the tournament. Djokovic is the most successful male player in Australian Open history and is looking for his 21st major title overall, which would put his tally ahead of Federer and Nadal for the first time in his career.

Yet in recent months, Djokovic had seemed prepared to skip the tournament altogether. He said as recently as early December that he was taking a wait-and-see approach until an official announcement on health protocols. When those turned out to be as stringent as everyone expected, Djokovic remained quiet, leaving organizers in Melbourne in limbo until as late as possible.

“Everyone who will attend—spectators, players, officials, staff, everyone—is expected to be fully vaccinated. They’re the rules,” the deputy premier of the Australian state of Victoria, James Merlino, told reporters last month. “Medical exemptions are just that. It’s not a loophole for privileged tennis players.”

On Tuesday, however, the state of Victoria defended the exemption for Djokovic, saying that it had been assessed through “an independent and rigorous process.”

Both sides were running out of time to make a call. With the first round kicking off on Jan. 17, this was likely the last week for players to travel and still arrive with enough time to acclimate to the summer heat and time difference. Most of the sport’s other major stars, including Nadal, U.S. Open champion Daniil Medvedev, and two-time Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka, who have all been in the country practicing for days.

But even with shorter preparation, this month’s tournament feels suddenly familiar. Djokovic will be the instant favorite to defend his title the moment he lands in Melbourne. 

Write to Joshua Robinson at Joshua.Robinson@wsj.com

https://www.wsj.com/amp/articles/novak-djokovic-australian-open-covid-vaccination-11641299705?mod=hp_major_pos1#cxrecs_s