The U.S. Open begins next week, but the betting favorite on the men’s side, Novak Djokovic, will likely be prevented from competing, barring a last-minute pivot by the player or the U.S. government.
On April 21, the Department of Homeland Security extended “temporary Title 19 requirements” that mandate non-U.S. citizens entering the U.S. be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and provide related proof of vaccination upon request.
“These requirements were extended in consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and several other federal agencies,” DHS wrote in announcing the extension. “According to CDC, vaccines remain the most effective public health measure to protect people from severe illness or death from COVID-19, slow the transmission of COVID-19, and reduce the likelihood of new COVID-19 variants emerging.”
Djokovic doesn’t seem any more likely to change course. “I’m not planning to get vaccinated, so the only good news I can have is them removing the mandated green vaccine card or whatever you call it to enter United States or exemption,” Djokovic said last month after winning Wimbledon, his 21st Grand Slam title. At the end of July, the Serbian tennis ace posted on his social media channels, “I am preparing as if I will be allowed to compete, while I await to hear if there is any room for me to travel to the US. Fingers crossed!”
Djokovic fans received a glimmer of hope that the three-time U.S. Open champion will be able to travel to New York, based on updated COVID-19 guidelines announced by the CDC on Aug. 11. The revised guidance moved away from social distancing and COVID-19 quarantine requirements, while eliminating any distinction in the protocols between vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.
“This guidance acknowledges that the pandemic is not over, but also helps us move to a point where COVID-19 no longer severely disrupts our daily lives,” Greta Massetti, a C.D.C. epidemiologist, said in a statement.
The CDC said it will work to “align stand-alone guidance documents” in the coming weeks as related to “healthcare settings, congregate settings at higher risk of transmission, and travel.” But few expect the DHS regulations, which have kept Djokovic out of the U.S. for all events this year, to change this week.
“We of course would welcome Novak if the federal guidelines currently prohibiting unvaccinated non-U.S. citizens from entering the country were to change,” a USTA spokesperson said via e-mail. Djokovic is believed to be the only player ranked in the ATP top 100 that would be prevented from playing, based on the guidelines.
Current American players, John Isner and Taylor Fritz, both questioned the decision to keep Djokovic from playing, with Isner calling it “lunacy.” John McEnroe has also supported Djokovic. “I think it’s BS,” McEnroe told Fox News this month. “It’s really unfortunate but that’s the rules we really have right now with the government. I don’t agree with it but c’est la vie at the moment.” Two-time presidential candidate Steve Forbes echoed McEnroe, calling it “bureaucratic BS” on Twitter.
Djokovic has been at the center of the tennis world on and off the court in 2022. He was deported from Australia in January ahead of the Australian Open when his medical exemption visa was canceled. Djokovic’s ability to enter France for the French Open was in doubt, but he was ultimately allowed to compete at Roland Garros, where he lost to Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals. His seventh and last event so far this year was his title at Wimbledon. The stakes are raised for Djokovic as he competes with Nadal and Roger Federer for the all-time men’s record for Slam wins. Nadal is currently on top with 22.
Djokovic ranked fifth with $28.2 million in Sportico’s tally of the world’s highest-paid tennis players. Though sponsors have started backing away from Djokovic, despite his chance to go down as the greatest player in the history of the sport. This year, UKG and Peugeot both ended valuable “patch” sponsorships, which generate huge exposure for brands during marquee matches, such as Grand Slam finals. His Peugeot deal started in 2014, with UKG signing Djokovic in 2019. Lacoste remains Djokovic’s most valuable endorsement partner in a pact worth as much as $10 million annually, including bonuses for a big year on the court.
Djokovic lost to Daniil Medvedev in last year’s U.S. Open final in a stunning upset, ending his quest to become the first man to win the calendar grand slam since Rod Laver in 1969. It was his record sixth loss in an Open final. The Caesars sportsbook has Djokovic the favorite this year at +150, followed by Medvedev at +250.