Tennis Australia has hit back at suggestions it is seeking to exploit a “loophole” in border entry rules so unvaccinated players can compete in the upcoming Australian Open, amid speculation about Novak Djokovic’s ability to enter the country.
On Wednesday morning, Victoria’s deputy premier, James Merlino, responded to a report that the world No 1 had the backing of Tennis Australia – the organisers of the Open – to apply for an exemption on medical grounds after repeatedly refusing to reveal his vaccination status.
Government officials have previously said only fully vaccinated players, their entourages, staff and fans will be granted entry to Melbourne Park for the season’s first grand slam from January 17-30.
However Djokovic was this week announced as part of the Serbia team competing in the ATP Cup in Sydney in early January, fuelling speculation he could seek to enter the country via New South Wales, and may seek a medical exemption to circumvent the rules that apply to unvaccinated travellers.
“My view on this is really clear and really simple,” Merlino said on Wednesday. “Everyone’s looking forward to the Australian Open and everyone who will attend – spectators, players, officials, staff – everyone is expected to be fully vaccinated.”
“They’re the rules. Medical exemptions are just that – it’s not a loophole for privileged tennis players …It is a medical exemption in exceptional circumstances if you have an acute medical condition,” Merlino said.
Merlino added that decision-making powers to issue exemptions are ultimately made by the Commonwealth.
Tennis Australia, in a statement released later on Wednesday that did not mention Djokovic by name, said “all players, participants and staff at the Australian Open have to be vaccinated”.
“Any suggestion that Tennis Australia is seeking ‘loopholes’ within this process is simply untrue. Adjudicating on medical exemptions is the domain of independent medical experts. We are not in a position to influence this process and nor would we.”
“Any application for a medical exemption must follow strict government guidelines based on Atagi (Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation) clinical advice. This is the same process that applies to any person wanting to enter Australia,” the Tennis Australia statement said.
Tennis Australia is yet to confirm the list of players who will be competing at the upcoming Australian Open.
To play without being vaccinated in the ATP Cup in Sydney, the NSW government would have to apply for an exemption and the 34-year-old would have to undergo 14 days of quarantine upon arrival.
If unvaccinated, Djokovic would have to arrive in Sydney by 16 December in order to complete the mandatory 14-day quarantine for unvaccinated travellers before the competition starts on 1 January.
The Guardian contacted the NSW government for comment.