Novak Djokovic still missing as Australian Open chiefs left in dark over his participation

Novak Djokovic celebrates Serbia's WC qualification

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Special charter flights carrying the world’s top players have started to arrive Down Under for the Australian Open but there is still no sign of Novak Djokovic.

Tennis Australia insisted today that the world No.1 has not withdrawn from the ATP Cup where he is scheduled to play on Saturday.

Serbian newspaper Blic claimed this week that there was a “99% chance” that the nine-time Australian Open champion would withdraw from the warm-up event in Sydney.

But as with so much about Djokovic’s bid to win a male record 21st Grand Slam title at Melbourne Park, nothing is clear.

The Serb has repeatedly refused to disclose his vaccination status ahead of the first Grand Slam of the year where vaccinations are compulsory for all participants and spectators.

Before Christmas, Tennis Australia boss Craig Tiley revealed that a “small number” of the 3,000 players and support staff will be granted medical exemptions.

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“If Novak shows up at the Australian Open, he’ll either be vaccinated or he’ll have a medical exemption,” he said.

“It’s his choice on his medical condition, it’s his choice to keep personal and private like all of us would do with any condition we may or may not have. We are not going to force him or ask him to disclose that.”

Any exemption would need the approval of the Border Force – the law enforcement agency responsible for the protection of Australian borders and the safety of travellers.

But Djokovic receiving special permission to play would be hugely controversial in the city of Melbourne which has suffered six different lockdowns totalling 262 days – the most in the world – since March 2020.

There have been 2,202 Covid-related deaths in Australia – nine for every 100,000 people – compared to 148,000 in the UK at a rate of 221 per 100,000 people.

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The strict rules in South Australia saw the Aussie cricket captain Pat Cummins ruled out of the Second Test against England because he was a contact case.

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Djokovic – and new European Sportsman of the Year ahead of Max Verstappen and Robert Lewandowski –  has always been popular at Melbourne Park.

That will be tested if he plays next month without a full explanation, especially with full crowd capacities planned.

Tennis Australia’s biosecurity manager Tom McDowell resigned yesterday to add to the confusion.

With no Serena Williams or Roger Federer Down Under – and Rafa Nadal a doubt after contracting Covid-19 in Abu Dhabi – tournament organisers are desperate for Djokovic to play.

Last year’s runner-up Dominic Thiem has also withdrawn with wrist injury dogging him since June.

Naomi Osaka, who has not played competitively since the US Open in September, has arrived in Melbourne ahead of her title defence.

Tennis Australia have organised 17 charter flights to transport players and staff from Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Singapore.

Covid rules have been eased after entire charter flights were forced into a two-week hard quarantine if there was a single positive case on the same flight in the build-up to the 2021 Australian Open.

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