Novak Djokovic, newly crowned 7-time Wimbledon champion and one of the best tennis players to ever hold a racquet– a man healthy and in his prime– might not be able to enter the United States to play the US Open. But once again, the rules, the law and even your own opinion– might be open for interpretation. Hear me out on this.
Why Can’t Novak Play in the US Open?
Under Presidential Proclamation 10294 issued in October 2021, non-immigrant visitors to the United States must be vaccinated for Covid, with some exceptions (more on that below). Djokovic remains unvaccinated. Even after a protracted legal and deportation drama at this year’s Australian Open which prevented him from playing, Djokovic says he will not get vaccinated.
First of all, I want to point out that written journalism is generally divided into three categories: News, Analysis and Opinion. The best opinion writing is presented with facts to back up a compelling argument. That’s what I’m aiming for here. The following is my personal opinion, based on an examination of facts and information.
Secondly, I want to disclose that I am fully vaccinated and boosted, as is my entire family. If there were to be only two categories of people, pro-vax and anti-vax, I would be squarely in the pro-vax camp. It confounds me why someone would want to put their own health and the lives of those around them at risk, when there is a scientifically proven and safe way of greatly mitigating that threat. Scientists and economists have estimated that in their first year alone, vaccines saved at least 20 million lives, possibly my own and people I love.
Why Is Djokovic Not Vaccinated?
Djokovic maintains that the decision not to take the Covid vaccine is a matter of choice over his own body. He and his wife are plant-based and encourage natural choices as well as good health. Djokovic maintains he’s careful about what he puts in his body and is unsure about the Covid vaccine, at this time. He also says he was vaccinated for other diseases as a child and is not anti-vaccine.
I understand that certain people have convictions that they hold onto tenaciously. It’s hard for me to judge another person’s principles when a few of my own might be seen as highly dubious to someone else. I’m trying to be as open-minded as possible here. In this case, at this point in the pandemic, I believe it’s time to let go of the notions that someone with views other than my own, even if I believe them to be wrong-headed, should be restricted from entering a country that prides itself on open arms. The key phrase here is at this point in the pandemic.
The rest of this article is divided into two parts:
– A fact-based look at how Djokovic could enter the United States to play the US Open under the rules. If there were no pathway for Djokovic to play the US Open, an opinion that he should play would be moot. But there is a pathway.
– The second part of this article is my opinion as to why Djokovic should be allowed to play the US Open.
Pandemic Rules Could Change
It’s important to note that Covid vaccine rules for non-citizens entering the United States could change before mid-August when Djokovic would need to enter the country to play the US Open. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that trends shift quickly. Just last month, without much warning, the United States lifted the rule that air travelers coming into the country must have a negative Covid test. Likewise, the mask mandate on airplanes was reversed. The lifting of these two restrictions is evidence that officials in the US no longer see Covid as the threat it was two years ago. Just as easily, the vaccine restriction could be canceled by August.
The Current Covid Vaccine Rules Have Exceptions
Under Proclamation 10294, certain exceptions exist that allow unvaccinated non-citizens to enter by air, by land or by sea. Unless Djokovic has an undisclosed medical risk factor for taking the vaccine– and it doesn’t appear that he does because he likely would have used that in Australia– there is really only one exception under the rules that would let Djokovic enter the country to play the US Open. This exception, under 3(b) of the proclamation, is the “national interest” exception. It states:
“Persons whose entry would be in the national interest, as determined by the Secretary of State, Secretary of Transportation, or Secretary of Homeland Security (or their designees).”
Note that unlike Australian rules where one person, the Minister of Immigration, can issue exceptions, in the United States, a number of people could. They include: President Joe Biden, who issued the proclamation, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, Director of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, or anyone they designate to do so. From a practical standpoint, what does that mean? It’s a diplomatic question between countries. Theoretically, Djokovic could seek help from Serbian leaders to ask for an exception. It’s certainly not unprecedented and not out of the realm of possibility to do so.
Djokovic might start with a call to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, with whom he has a good relationship, who then might reach out to Secretary Blinken. Believe it or not, these kinds of questions are common and are a big reason countries maintain diplomatic relations. Djokovic doesn’t know if he could get a waiver under 3(b) unless he tries. In fact, the US might currently be in a position of wanting stronger relations with Serbia. That can only help Novak.
The city of New York has changed its rules allowing unvaccinated athletes to play, so there are no local restrictions holding Djokovic back.
A final note relates to the tennis governing body in the U.S., which is the United States Tennis Association (USTA). The USTA does not currently have a vaccine mandate for players or fans, so if Djokovic could enter the country, he conceivably could play under tournament rules. Unvaccinated US citizens, like Tennys Sandgren for example, are allowed to enter if they qualify.
In addition, the USTA might choose to use its governmental liaisons to advocate for Djokovic to get an exception to play the US Open. Why might USTA officials choose to do that? Djokovic, a 3-time US Open champion, brings star power to the tournament and greatly enhances the quality of the men’s draw. Just as easily, USTA officials could choose to remain neutral.
Why Djokovic Should Be Allowed To Play the US Open
Personally, I believe it is in the national interest to allow Djokovic to play in the US Open, and I believe it’s fair to do so. Here are the three reasons why.
Djokovic is not a material threat. He has contracted Covid twice and therefore should have good immunity. Although it is possible to get Covid three times, it’s rare. Djokovic is a celebrity and is largely kept away from other people when he travels, and he has the ability to fly on a private plane. When he is around large crowds, he’s mainly outdoors. For all practical purposes, it would be unlikely that a person with some natural immunity and is kept away from others, would become a superspreader.
Covid is less threatening than it was. Infections are down nationally from the height of the pandemic, hospitalizations are down and deaths are down. Even though Omicron and its subvariants are more transmissible that earlier versions, it’s not as potent.
Djokovic inspires people to play tennis. As an international celebrity, a member of the Big Three and a 21-time Grand Slam Champion, Novak Djokovic is a household name. His rock-solid tennis technique, mental toughness and durability have the broad effect of encouraging others to pick up a racquet and play tennis. And while Covid is on the decline, heart disease and obesity are not. These killers are actually on the increase, especially in the United States. If US officials are serious about encouraging healthy habits like exercise, they will let Djokovic into the country to play the US Open. On a personal note, my family has a history of heart attack from coronary artery disease. With my health profile, getting enough exercise and fitness are more of a concern for me than Covid (although the two can certainly be related). There are millions like me.
Other unvaccinated athletes can play. Would it be fair that unvaccinated US citizens like Sandgren can compete in the US Open while unvaccinated foreign players can not? Fundamentally, I would argue it is not fair. Why should a US-born player be afforded a special privilege in an international competition only because of birthright? This seems antithetical to the American ideal.
The real bottom line is that we’re at a point in the pandemic where some health experts aren’t even calling it a pandemic anymore. Life in and out of professional sports has, in many ways, resumed to pre-pandemic modes. To see Djokovic restricted from playing the US Open would feel very 2021. As he inspires millions and sets an excellent example for health and fitness in other ways not related to Covid, I believe it’s in the national interest to let the icon compete.
Change is hard. During the pandemic, so many of us worked very diligently to accept our new reality and stop the spread of this deadly virus. Now it’s time to accept the newer reality– that life is returning to a freer, less-restricted way of being.