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25 Oct, 2021 11:00

Vax on, vax off: Leaked email suggests Aus Open will allow unvaccinated stars, sparks row between Azarenka & journalist

Vax on, vax off: Leaked email suggests Aus Open will allow unvaccinated stars, sparks row between Azarenka & journalist

Unvaccinated tennis stars could be set to compete at January's Australian Open after an email sent to WTA players which seems to contradict local Covid-19 public health restrictions was leaked to the media.

Victoria, the Australian state which will host the tournament early next year, has recently introduced a vaccine mandate for all professional athletes seeking to compete within its borders – however, the email leaked online by tennis reporter Ben Rothenberg suggests that unvaccinated players will be allowed to participate if certain conditions are followed, such as quarantining for 14 days upon arrival into the country. 

It had previously been though that a host of high-profile vaccine holdouts in the sport would be ineligible to compete unless they received a full dose of one of the several available vaccines.

Also on rt.com ‘I will not reveal my status’: Djokovic claims it would be ‘inappropriate’ to declare whether he is vaccinated as visa issue looms

World number one Novak Djokovic is thought to fall under this category after recently refusing to state whether or not he had received an inoculation against the virus.

Djokovic has won an incredible nine Australian Open titles, including the last three in a row, and another win in the first Grand Slam of 2022 would separate the Serb from a pack which also includes Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal as the player with the most Grand Slam titles in history. 

Per the email published to social media by Rothenberg, players who remain unvaccinated "must submit to regular testing". By contrast, players who are fully vaccinated "will have complete freedom of movement" – but when pressed for comment, Victorian Sports and Major Events Minister Martin Pakula appeared to suggest that plan was not yet set in stone.

"We are still resolving with Tennis Australia and the Commonwealth whether unvaccinated foreign nationals will be allowed into Australia at all, and if so, under what circumstances they will be allowed," he said.

"Unvaccinated, we are still talking to the Commonwealth about whether the rule for international unvaccinated arrivals is either 14 days quarantine, or they are not coming into the country at all. We don’t expect that to be settled for another couple of weeks.

"In the end, it’s a federal decision about who gets into the country and the circumstances in which they get in. We are still having that conversation with them. And we’re obviously talking to Tennis Australia who is also talking to the Commonwealth.

"We’ll get all that sorted in plenty of time for every player on the tour to be very clear about what the rules will be. The one thing that we have assured them all, is that the vaccinated players will be treated the same way as any other vaccinated entrant to the country."

The potential change of tack – which as of now remains unconfirmed – would appear to be in reaction to last year's iteration of the Australian Open during which several players complained about the conditions in their mandatory hotel quarantine, as well problems in readying themselves for competition under such circumstances.

This has led to questions as to whether players who were forced into quarantine last January would be open to doing so again early next year.

The situation is further muddied by conflicting statements from Australian authorities. Victorian premier Daniel Andrews on Sunday doubled down on government advice, saying "if you’re not vaccinated, you’re not getting in" – while as recently as last Wednesday the immigration minister Alex Hawke noted that it was unlikely that tennis players would be given vaccine exemptions. 

However, one recipient of the advice issued to WTA players wasn't quite on board with the topic being discussed openly in the media. Former world number one Victoria Azarenka took to social media to hit out at Rothenberg for publishing the leaked email online.

"The fact that this was shared to players confidentially and within 2 hours Ben you are posting this. You clearly haven’t read the email. Unless I missed the point that you are a WTA player now?" wrote Azarenka, to which Rothenberg shot back: "Vika, this is my job. If you have an issue with it being leaked to me – and at least one other reporter – blame the leaker(s).

"I think we will definitely do that," responded the Belarusian star. "I always respect the reporters and what you guys do. Without a doubt. However this is not the case here. It’s your duty to report things if they are not reported, but to leak information before it's officially announced is clickbait."

Also on rt.com 'It would be great if more players got vaccinated': Tennis ace Murray backs ‘very strict’ Australian government rules for unjabbed

With a little under three months remaining until the first big event of 2022's tennis calendar, it seems as though the impact of Covid-19 is still being felt no matter how diligently the sports world attempts to navigate its way out of the pandemic.

And as shown by the reactions of some of the sport's top stars (such as Djokovic refusing to state his vaccination status and Azarenka sparring with reporters online), the issue appears certain to prompt even further division before the first serve of next year's flagship event.