Serbian tennis great Novak Djokovic returned to the United States this week for the first time since leftist President Joe Biden overturned a ban on foreigners who have not ingested Wuhan coronavirus vaccine products entering the country, telling journalists he has “zero regrets” about missing some of the world’s most prestigious tournaments over the policy.
Djokovic has publicly stated that he was uncomfortable with ingesting coronavirus vaccine products, claiming to have been infected by the virus on several occasions. He famously defied global lockdowns in 2020 by organizing a series of tennis events that year known as the “Adria Tour,” which abruptly ended when multiple participants tested positive for the virus.
Since then, Djokovic has abstained from competitions in countries that did not allow entry to individuals without proof of vaccine product consumption or attempted to receive medical exemptions from those rules. His successful attempt to receive a medical exemption to enter Australia in 2022 ended disastrously when the government of then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison abruptly rescinded its approval for entry and imprisoned Djokovic in a migrant detention facility before deporting him on the grounds that his presence in the country may “excite anti-vax sentiment.”
The federal treasurer of the government of Australia at the time, Josh Frydenberg, later admitted in a television interview that Djokovic entered the country possessing a legal visa, but blamed a “computer-generated process” for issuing a visa the government did not want to deem valid.
In addition to the trauma of imprisonment for alleged illegal entry, Djokovic missed the opportunity to play in the Australian Open, one of the tennis world’s four most prestigious tournaments, or “Grand Slams.” Spanish player Rafael Nadal won that year’s contest, giving him the record for most Grand Slams won by a single man in history at the time. Nadal had chided Djokovic to “follow the rules” in remarks regarding that controversy before the tournament began.
The Biden administration announced a ban on foreign nationals who did not present proof of coronavirus vaccine product consumption from flying into the country in October 2021.
“Starting on November 8, non-citizen, non-immigrant air travelers to the United States will be required to be fully vaccinated and to provide proof of vaccination status prior to boarding an airplane to fly to the U.S.,” the White House said in a written declaration of the new rules. “For foreign nationals, proof of vaccination will be required — with very limited exceptions — to board the plane.”
Washington would accept proof of ingestion of vaccine products approved by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.), a list that included vaccine products made in China that Communist Party officials admitted “don’t have very high protection rates.”
Djokovic missed the U.S. Open, another Grand Slam tournament, last year as the Biden administration did not grant him an exemption. He also missed several tournaments in March in the United States before the White House ended its restrictions in May.
Djokovic is currently playing in Cincinnati’s Western & Southern Open. On Monday, fans filled a stadium to watch Djokovic practice before his first match on Tuesday, a warm welcome for the current holder of the record for most Grand Slam titles in men’s tennis history.
Asked about the time he spent away from the court due to defying vaccine mandates, Djokovic told reporters on Tuesday that he was “glad to be back,” but had no regrets about how he handled the situation.
“Throughout my life I’ve really developed this kind of mindset that I don’t look back with regret on things,” Djokovic said, according to the sports outlet Tennis365. “Things happening on the outside, the reason I was not here for two years, I have zero regrets. I’m glad to be back. I’ve had plenty of success on American soil.”
“I’m very excited to return to the country after two years; I’m very grateful for all the love that people are giving me,” he added.
Djokovic had initially refused to discuss his vaccination status but, following the ordeal in Australia, admitted to not receiving a vaccine product and defended his individual right to choose to do so.
“I understand that, and support fully, the freedom to choose, you know, whether you want to get vaccinated or not,” Djokovic said in a February 2022 interview with the BBC. “And I have not spoken about this before and I have not disclosed my medical record and my vaccination status because I had the right to keep that private and discreet, but as I see there is a lot of wrong conclusions and assumptions out there I think it’s important to speak up.”
“I understand that not being vaccinated today, I’m unable to travel to most of the tournaments at the moment. That is the price I’m willing to pay,” Djokovic asserted. “The principles of decision-making on my body are more important than any title or anything else.”
Djokovic last attempted to enter the United States in February, applying for legal admission to participate in Indian Wells and the Miami Open.
“Everything is currently in the process. I have a big desire to be there,” Djokovic told reporters in Serbia at the time.
Ultimately, the Biden administration rejected his application — only to rescind the unvaccinated foreign ban two months later. By May, the tennis world had moved on to its clay-court season in Europe, returning to America in August for the tournaments leading up to New York’s U.S. Open.
Djokovic has won two of the three Grand Slams played this year so far — the Australian Open and the French Open. Djokovic lost Wimbledon in a dramatic match against 20-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz, considered his greatest challenger for the U.S. Open title.
In an email shared with reporters on Tuesday, U.S. Tennis Association spokesman Chris Widmaier said Djokovic would be welcome at the 2023 U.S. Open in light of the Biden administration lifting its vaccine mandate for foreign travelers.
“Novak Djokovic is a great champion, a fan favorite, and now that the federal government has lifted its vaccine requirements for international travelers, we look forward to welcoming him back to New York for the 2023 U.S. Open,” Widmaier said.
In his first match in Cincinnati since 2019, and his first tour-level appearance since the Wimbledon final, Djokovic won a 6-4 opening set against Alejandro Davidovich Fokina before the Spaniard retired in the first game of the second set. Djokovic, who won the Western & Southern Open in 2018 and in 2020 (when it was held in New York), will next meet Gael Monfils on Thursday.
In Cincinnati, Djokovic is scheduled to play his second-round match on Thursday night against veteran French player Gael Monfils.