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Novak Djokovic has sparked furious backlash on social media after confirming that he is coming to the Australian Open after being granted a medical exemption to compete.
After months of uncertainty, the nine-time champion finally confirmed his participation in the year's first grand slam, all but confirming the long-standing rumours that he is unvaccinated.
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The Serbian superstar had repeatedly refused to disclose his vaccination status after the Victorian government mandated only fully vaccinated players, fans and staff would be allowed into Melbourne Park.
Officials said a very small percentage of players would be granted an exemption to compete without being vaccinated, provided they had valid medical grounds as determined by an independent panel of medical experts.
Taking to social media on Tuesday night, Djokovic confirmed that he had been granted "permission" to compete at Melbourne Park, without going into details about what grounds he qualifies for the exemption.
"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," he said on Instagram.
"Happy New Year! Wishing you all health, love & joy in every moment & may you feel love & respect towards all beings on this wonderful planet."
Djokovic, who'd also expressed concerns about Australia's quarantine rules, received a reprieve last month when Victorian premier Dan Andrews and Tennis Australia (TA) moved to have an independent panel established to preside over requests for medical exemptions against having the COVID-19 vaccination.
TA boss and Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said the panel would consist of doctors from the fields of immunology, infectious disease and general practice.
Due to privacy laws, players who chose to request an exemption were not obliged to reveal so publicly.
Nor would they need to disclose if they'd been granted entry to the Open through an exemption.
Djokovic declaring his position removes any innuendo after the ATP estimated close to 95 per cent of players had been jabbed.
"I am ready to live and breathe tennis in the next few weeks of competition. Thanks everyone for the support," Djokovic added in his statement, which was accompanied by a picture of him in an airport.
TA said in a statement Djokovic's exemption "was granted following a rigorous review process involving two separate independent panels of medical experts".
"One of those was the Independent Medical Exemption Review Panel appointed by the Victorian Department of Health," the statement said.
"They assessed all applications to see if they met the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) guidelines.
"Applications that met the national guidelines set by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) were then subjected to a second review conducted by a Government-appointed panel of medical experts, the Independent Medical Exemption Review Panel.
"The multi-step independent review process was designed to ensure the safety of everyone at the Australian Open."
World up in arms over Novak Djokovic news
Despite those assurances from TA, many were left outraged at what they viewed as preferential treatment for the premier player in men's tennis.
— Neil McMahon (@NeilMcMahon) January 4, 2022
Novak Djokovic confirms he is travelling to the Australian Open with a vaccine exemption permission. Absolute disgrace @AustralianOpen. One rule for one. He’s good at tennis so can put lives at risk?
— Jennifer Roberts (@JenniferRober14) January 4, 2022
Novak Djokovic receives an exemption to compete in the Australian Open unvaccinated.
Gee. That’s a shock!
— Stephen Quartermain (@Quartermain10) January 4, 2022
Australian officials have been flamboyantly insisting they will bar tennis players from their country unless they are vaccinated or have a medical excuse.
Magically, the steadfastly unvaccinated Novak Djokovic - one of the planet's fittest athletes - qualifies for an exemption! https://t.co/k9w7ZJj5zY
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) January 4, 2022
Jamie Murray on Novak Djokovic's medical exemption: "I think if it was me that wasn't vaccinated I wouldn't be getting an exemption" #AustralianOpen
— Neil McLeman (@NeilMcLeman) January 4, 2022
Novak Djokovic can enter the country under 'Medical Exemption' to play tennis.
I can't even apply for a medical exemption to support my family.
— Chief Health Officer McGoo (@CHOMcgoo) January 4, 2022
Don’t ever want to hear people complain again that Novak Djokovic gets treated unfairly by tournament organisers... 🤷🏻♂️ #AusOpen
— GameSetMatch 🎾 (@Tennis20MAD) January 4, 2022
Were we really that desperate to get Novak Djokovic to Australia?
I know there are other players with exemptions but the fact that Tennis Australia jumped through hoops for him, and not the other way around, is a joke.
I feel like he’s lost a lot of Aussie fans. #AusOpen
— Lachlan McKirdy (@LMcKirdy7) January 4, 2022
Djokovic withdrew from this week's ATP Cup in Sydney in a strong indication he was among the small minority of unvaccinated players.
Without a match since last year's Davis Cup Finals in early December, the world No.1 will likely seek a wildcard to contest either next week's Sydney Tennis Classic or the second Adelaide International.
Otherwise the 34-year-old will launch his assault for a 10th Open crown without any competitive build-up.
Tiley said players, fans and staff at the Open must be fully vaccinated, unless there was a genuine reason why an exemption should be granted.
"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," he said.
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