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The tragedy of Novak Djokovic

He’s arguably the world’s greatest tennis player and belongs squarely in the greatest-of-all-time conversation. But tennis fans won’t see him on one of its biggest stages at the U.S. Open because of the federal government’s rule against allowing unvaccinated non-U.S. citizens into the United States.

“Sadly, I will not be able to travel to NY this time for US Open,” Novak Djokovic wrote on Twitter. “Good luck to my fellow players! I’ll keep in good shape and positive spirit and wait for an opportunity to compete again.”  

The 35-year-old Serbian is one month removed from capturing Wimbledon in London again. He’s now won 21 Grand Slam singles titles, one fewer than the great Rafael Nadal. Nadal may very well extend that lead with Djokovic unable to play. Regardless of whether a Djokovic-Nadal match-up would have taken place, not having the world’s best player in New York competing against anyone is robbing tennis fans.

And it’s all for nothing.

Djokovic isn’t vaccinated against COVID-19. His body, his choice. He could easily get the jabs and be done with it, but he’s steadfastly sticking to his principles. If this is about the science and data and protecting others from the virus, how does getting the vaccine stop the spread of the virus? More and more, we’re seeing triple-vaccinated people contracting coronavirus. President Biden and first lady Jill Biden even got it twice in the span of less than two weeks despite being fully vaxxed up.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky said recently about vaccines preventing transmission: “Our vaccines are working exceptionally well. … What they can’t do anymore is prevent transmission.”

Consider also that Djokovic already had COVID-19 in June 2020 and December 2021 and therefore has naturally acquired immunity. Several respected studies have suggested that natural immunity is also effective at preventing major illness from the virus. 
In other words, Djokovic, relatively young and in top health, has little risk from COVID-19 because his body has produced naturally what a vaccine would otherwise provide. 

And if this is about public health and safety, someone really needs to explain why Djokovic, nowhere near anyone on a court, cannot play while more than 23,000 fans fill Arthur Ashe Stadium without masks and without showing the same vaccination card Djokovic is required to present before entering the country.

“At this time, ticket holders will not be required to show proof of COVID vaccination for admission into the US Open,” the event’s official website states.

And while we’re at it, why was he allowed to play in last year’s U.S. Open unvaccinated but not in 2022 under the same status?

When it comes to healthy athletes and vaccine mandates, it’s all become very arbitrary. Take a nationally televised NBA game from earlier this year featuring the New York Knicks at the Brooklyn Nets.

Kyrie Irving, the Nets unvaccinated star point guard, wasn’t allowed to play for the home team due to New York’s COVID-19 laws at the time. But there was Irving, plain-clothed and sitting courtside, mingling with fans and cheering his team on, without a mask, and even greeting players during timeouts with high-fives and chest-bumps.

Can you believe this? Irving was allowed to sit in the stands with no mask. He could touch his teammates and talk to people in the stands at close range. But playing was deemed a health risk.

Oh, and here’s the best part: New York’s rules allowed unvaccinated players from other states to play.

Tennis icon and broadcaster John McEnroe called the Djokovic decision “a joke.” 

“I don’t think it’s fair,” the always candid McEnroe told reporters on Thursday. “I think it’s a joke. I would have had the vaccine and gone and played, but he’s got very strong beliefs, and you have to respect that.”

“At this point in the pandemic, we’re 2 ½ years in. I think people in all parts of the world know more about it, and the idea that he can’t travel here to play to me is a joke,” he added.

A Djokovic-less Open comes as the U.S. government is allowing millions of migrants to enter the country regardless of vaccination status. Those entering illegally are coming in from poorer countries, where vaccines are less common.

Of course, our government does not require those entering illegally to show a vaccination card. But if you’re Djokovic, it’s an absolute necessity.

Tennis fans will be robbed this week. Djokovic, who had been ranked No. 1 for 373 consecutive weeks (a record), will sit and watch someone else win a title he’s captured three times.

We will someday look back on the COVID-19 era with such shame — shame for what our leaders did in preventing our children from going to school and requiring that they wear masks for years.

The same illogic applies to those who believe keeping Djokovic out of the country and out of the Open is a good idea. 

Joe Concha is a media and politics columnist.

Tags anti-vaccination movement CDC guidelines COVID-19 vaccines Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic US Open

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