• AFP-JIJI

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Novak Djokovic received no “special favors” to play at the opening Grand Slam of the year, Tennis Australia boss Craig Tiley insisted Wednesday as the move to grant him a medical exemption sparked fury.

The nine-time Australian Open champion announced late Tuesday he was en route to Melbourne with “an exemption permission,” culminating a drawn-out saga over whether he would defend his title.

All participants at the tournament, which starts on Jan. 17, must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or have the exemption, which is assessed by two panels of independent experts.

The Serb has repeatedly refused to confirm if he has been inoculated and previously expressed opposition to the coronavirus vaccine.

Melbourne and Sydney have both endured months of restrictions and lockdowns over the past two years, and allowing him in was widely criticized.

“I think it’s disgusting. I think he should have made his mind up before now and it shouldn’t be a last minute decision to get him in,” Melbourne resident Ron Wilson said on Wednesday.

Other city residents were more sympathetic with Morteza Yari saying: “I think as long as the exemption is valid and they have valid reasons I don’t see a problem with that.”

Tiley insisted the decision was above board and defended the integrity of the process, run by the national and Victorian state governments, that reviewed his application.

He revealed 26 players or their support staff from the 3,000 or so traveling to Australia had asked for an exemption, and only a few were successful.

“Any person who met those conditions has been allowed to come in. There’s been no special favor. There’s been no special opportunity granted to Novak,” Tiley told Channel Nine television.

Vaccine opposition

Among the conditions allowing entry without a vaccine is if the person has had COVID-19 in the past six months. It is not clear whether this was the case with Djokovic.

Tiley previously said the two panels assessed each exemption without knowing the identity of the applicant, with reasons for granting approval remaining confidential.

Djokovic expressed his opposition to the COVID-19 vaccine in April 2020 when it was suggested they might be obligatory so tournament play could resume.

“Personally I am not pro-vaccines,” Djokovic said at the time. “I would not like it for someone to compel me to be vaccinated so I can travel.”

Some players expressed surprise with the ruling, including British doubles player Jamie Murray who said at the ATP Cup in Sydney: “I don’t know what to say about that really.

“I think if it was me that wasn’t vaccinated I wouldn’t be getting an exemption.”

Tiley said he understood the community being concerned.

“People this morning would wake up to that news (and I) would completely understand and empathize with them being completely upset,” he said.

“Really at the end of the day … not only was the process appropriately followed but the conditions in which any tennis player comes in — no matter who they are — conditions put on tennis and put on anyone coming into Australia is by the Australian government.”

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