For those of you who only know me from my arts journalism, you may not know I am a massive tennis fan. The two T’s, I like to say — theatre and tennis — are my loves. Just see the walls of my bedroom where my autographed Rafael Nadal poster hangs alongside my framed Broadway ticket collage. In Grand Slam world, I’ve attended the U.S. Open every year since 2000; I went to the French in 2013 when I worried it might be Rafa’s last one — my faith has rebounded since; I went to the Australian in 2018; I would have been at Wimbledon in 2020.
My allegiance is to Rafael Nadal and has been for 20 years. I have loved that man since he first stepped on a court in his sleeveless tank and jammers, since he first fought every point to the death. His grit, his faith, his integrity, his sportsmanship, his persistence, his fire have made me loyal to him. I love a handful of players, but, to be honest, my allegiance is also to anyone other than Novak Djokovic. I fully admit it. I can never deny Djokovic’s talent for the sport, but I have no taste or tolerance for him. I root against him every time. As a fan (or anti-fan), I have to confess I’m excited that after his loss yesterday in Dubai he will forfeit his number one ranking to Daniil Medvedev. Petty? Absolutely. Honest? You bet.
And yet, you may be surprised to hear me say: “Novak Djokovic should not be banned from tennis tournaments due to his vaccine status.” I agreed with the final decision of the Australian Minister to disallow Djokovic from staying in Australia this past January to compete at this year’s tournament—not because he was unvaccinated, but because he inaccurately completed his Visa paperwork. No one gets to lie on their paperwork (or submit paperwork with human error) and enter a country Scott-free.
But I do think Tennis Australia, the governing body for tennis in Australia (responsible for promoting local participation in tennis, developing players, and staging tennis events), was fair in issuing Djokovic a medical exemption at the start.
All players were equally eligible to apply for medical exemption. Applicants were evaluated blindly (without their names attached) by two independent panels of medical experts, in a first stage and second stage. The medical experts were set to “consist of doctors from the fields of immunology, infectious disease and general practice” and the second review was conducted by “a government-appointed panel,” according to CNN. Medical doctors deemed Djokovic—without regard for his name or player status—exempt from vaccination. (Again, he should not have been allowed to play for Visa reasons; but his vaccine status became irrelevant.)
Before you jump on me, I am a double-vaccinated and boosted individual. I willingly disclose that I, fortunately, have no pre-existing health conditions. I am “young and healthy” as they say. I have not, to the best of my knowledge, been infected with any strain of COVID-19 at any point. In the early days of the pandemic (approximately March 2020–July 2020) there were no tests available. I did not show any symptoms in this window. As soon as I was able to be tested for the virus and for antibodies in July 2020, I did so. I did not show traces of either. Over the past additional 18 months, I have consistently and voluntarily done PCR tests every few weeks (sometimes every single week). I mask everywhere I go — public places and private homes (unless we have all isolated and tested negative). I never wore a cloth mask; those never made sense to me. (If cloth were an option couldn’t we just wear scarves?) I have always worn either a surgical mask with a cloth mask over it or an KN95 or N95 — sometimes also with a surgical mask or cloth mask over that. In 2021, I urged everyone I knew to get vaccinated as soon as they could; I am pro-vaccine. This is my overall stance on COVID safety through January 2022. What I would categorize as “very cautious.”
Yet, banning Djokovic from future tournaments doesn’t make sense to me based on the most up-to-date raw science—even though we may hear otherwise from difference sources.
Djokovic did test positive for COVID-19 in December 2021 and, previously on June 22, 2020. Since he’s still alive, he obviously recovered at least those two times (perhaps more, unbeknownst to him and us). This means he has an immune response, a.k.a. natural immunity. The term “natural immunity” has caused fear and public controversy. I think that’s because, on its face, it sounds like someone is saying they are naturally immune or born immune to COVID-19. To current data, you cannot be born with innate immunity to COVID-19. Early research from NYU Langone shows the pregnant women who received vaccines can pass along antibodies to their fetuses, but while this can provide some immunity, it does not make an infant wholly immune. There is no evidence to suggest an “immune from COVID-19 gene” — nor does the phrase “natural immunity” claim there is.
“Natural immunity,” as defined by Johns Hopkins Medicine, is “the antibody protection your body creates against a germ once you’ve been infected with it.” Both natural immunity and vaccine-induced immunity are types of active immunity, which, defined by the CDC, “results when exposure to a disease organism triggers the immune system to produce antibodies to that disease.”
So, Djokovic’s personal health risk is not the same as someone who is unvaccinated and has also not recovered from COVID. His personal health risk is also qualitatively not identical to someone who has been vaccinated. Natural immunity and vaccination are different types of immunity. Interpretations of data conflict about which is “better,” but we cannot pretend Djokovic has no antibodies or immune response to this disease. Scientific logic based on his previous infections says he does. After having symptomatic COVID in 2020, Djokovic then experienced asymptomatic COVID in December 2021. It is probable, though not proven, (based on these self-reported symptoms rather any release of medical records) that Djokovic’s natural immunity from his first infection may have made his second infection less severe. Certainly, he was not hospitalized nor did he die from either infection.
At the end of the day, every COVID-19 intervention is here to try to best prevent severe illness, hospitalization, and death.
The question now becomes: Is Djokovic a greater risk to other people and players than a player who is vaccinated? This is less clear, but evidence from multiple sources suggest he is not a greater risk.
Vaccines do not prevent transmission. I repeat: Vaccines do not prevent transmission.
We know of individuals who have been vaccinated and still contract COVID-19. We know of individuals who have been vaccinated and still transmit COVID-19.
This does not mean vaccines are ineffective; on the contrary, vaccines are extremely effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization, and death. This is good news. This indicates extreme effectiveness of vaccines. This is, personally, why I chose to get vaccinated and why I am satisfied and reassured by my choice.
Protecting the health of the individual was the goal of the vaccine. Did we hope for (and hear of) “herd immunity” in the early days? Yes. Is global herd immunity a probable outcome now? No. Would it have been helpful if vaccines prevented or curtailed transmission? Obviously, yes. But that would have been a bonus. Vaccines are effective at achieving their intended purpose to lessen severity of illness and prevent hospitalization of infected people.
Based on the recent data, as distributed by Reuters, vaccination was more effective than natural immunity before the Delta variant. (Hence, my stance that Djokovic — and all adults — should have been vaccinated early on.) That said, also according to Reuters, people previously infected with COVID-19 were actually better protected against Delta than those who were only vaccinated.
I acknowledge that the CDC still recommends those previously infected with COVID-19 get vaccinated. For those vaccinated who then survive a COVID-19 infection, the CDC also generally recommends boosters. Yet, according to CDC website FAQs, “current evidence about the optimal timing between SARS-CoV-2 infection and vaccination is insufficient to inform guidance.” It’s not black and white, as critics of Djokovic’s vaccine status make it seem.
The overall consensus, from multiple sources, is that “protection against Delta was highest, however, among people who were both vaccinated and had survived a previous COVID infection, and lowest among those who had never been infected or vaccinated, the study found.”
What this means is that Djokovic is better protected against the Delta variant, the more severe between Delta and Omicron. And, as of February 22, 2022, the Omicron variant is actually the globally dominant variant of COVID-19, according to the WHO. The science says he is not as protected as someone who has survived a previous infection and been vaccinated; but he is more protected than someone who has never been infected, and he is more protected than someone who has never been vaccinated.
As of February 25, 2022 (the date of this opinion piece’s publication), it seems a reasonable deduction that Djokovic is not a greater risk to himself or others on the ATP tour than a vaccinated tennis player. Frankly, a reasonable deduction is all we can aim for.
We also have to stop acting like there are zero side effects to vaccines. These vaccines are generally safe. The risk of side effects is minimal according to all of the data we have. Again, I am double-vaccinated and boosted and encouraged everyone I know to get vaccinated. I still think most people who have not been infected and are unvaccinated should be vaccinated, depending on their individual health and their physician’s advice. We cannot say there are zero side effects in 100 percent of patients. Is it likely, given what we know about Djokovic, he would have an adverse reaction? No. Is it possible? Yes.
Dr. Peter Attia quoted data on his podcast The Drive and in a follow-up newsletter that recently shifted my previous hard-line perspective: According to raw data from the CDC (a.k.a. not an analysis, just numbers), the annual COVID death rate in people between the ages of 25–34 is 6.9 per 100,000. Any death of an individual this age is tragic, no doubt, and we all want that number to be zero. That said, as a comparison, the annual drug overdose death rate in people ages 25–34 is 45.5 per 100,000; the annual suicide death rate in people ages 25–34 is 18.0 per 100,000. (To be transparent, annual did not indicated the exact same 12-month period. Suicide and drug overdose death rates were calculated in a 12-month period ending Q3 of 2020; COVID death rates were calculated in a 12-month period ending in Q1 of 2021. Overlapping periods, identical length periods, but not the same periods of time.) Djokovic is 34 years old.
There is no one size fits all when it comes to health. I wish there were. Everyone’s body is different. As Dr. Marty Makary, M.D. said on the January 3, 2022 episode of Attia’s podcast: “The vaccine still makes sense in a certain context and a certain way, in young people it’s often to prevent MIS-C [Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome] and hospitalization — more than it is to prevent death in children — but it’s nuanced. It’s not a one-size-fits-all strategy, especially for those with natural immunity.”
Which is why when I hear mainstream media rail against Djokovic on this one issue, my blood pressure rises. As thrilled as I am that suddenly the world cares about tennis (a.k.a. the best sport), this is all over the news around the world because Djokovic symbolizes anyone who has not been vaccinated (which he clarified is not the same as being an anti-vaxxer). If a tennis champion has to choose between his job/life’s ambition and a vaccine, what about a high school graduate having to choose between their dream university that requires vaccines and boosters or another school that doesn’t, or a tee-ball player who has to quit the team? I’m not saying none of these people should get vaccinated. I’m saying, knowing what we know on this day, it shouldn’t be mandated.
Science is not a fact; it is a process. Data evolves. I know this is the very reason people find it so hard to trust data, scientists, experts, and the media. This is why it’s hard to make decisions. But as anything else in life, you do what you can at the moment with the information you have. Djokovic is doing this.
The athlete has expressed his belief in data evolution publicly. “I decided not to take the vaccine, as of today,” he told Amol Rajan in his BBC Exclusive interview published February 15, 2022. “As of today?” Rajan doubled-back with surprise. “Yes,” Djokovic confirmed. “I keep my mind open.”
When Novak Djokovic hosted the 2020 Adria Tour (the exhibition tour organized by Djokovic and his family scheduled to play four cities from June 13–July 5, 2020), I was furious. At a time when we did not know a lot — but we did know the virus was highly contagious via aerosol droplets and that it was potentially deadly — this was irresponsible behavior. This was dangerous behavior. When Djokovic tested positive in December and proceeded with a one-on-one magazine interview and photoshoot (without disclosing his positive test), that was irresponsible, inconsiderate, dangerous, and endangering behavior. That’s unacceptable. There should be consequences for knowingly endangering another person. (If dishonest and knowingly neglectful behavior is why they want to disallow him from tournaments, rather than is vaccine status, that’s another story.)
Do I think Djokovic should have gotten a vaccine in the first few months of 2021 when they became available to those his age his his home country of Serbia? Yes. Is it my right or job to force him to? No.
We have additional, non-invasive ways to increase protection and safety with respect to COVID-19. In terms of preventative measures, masking, testing, and distancing still work. You want to make Djokovic wear an N95 mask everywhere except during his matches? Do it. You want him to stay in a bubble? Fine. Present him with that option. If extra measures come at an additional monetary cost, perhaps Djokovic has to foot the bill. The 2021 U.S. Open permitted Djokovic (and other unvaccinated players at that time) to play with testing measures and a bubble in place; and the risks were greater then! We can discuss the fairness of that based on the science another day. But in terms of vaccines, today’s science says the Djoker shouldn’t have to forego tournaments in the name of COVID safety. (If the science changes, or if another variant of concern arises, so too will my opinion—and, likely, the opinion of the scientific and medical communities.)
I’ve quoted from multiple sources in an effort to be thorough, but I realize there may be a fact you simply don’t believe or a source you simply don’t trust. I understand that. Because different sources interpret facts and data differently. This is why right now is so confusing. But I hope my transparency has encouraged you to cross-reference multiple sources, to look for raw data, and to better comprehend this whole saga.
As it stands now, Djokovic will likely not play at the French Open in Paris or at the U.S. Open in New York City. (The U.S. requires non-citizens to be vaccinated to enter; France is a bit more complex depending on where one arrives from, the possibility of a certificate of recovery, etc., but entering unvaccinated requires jumping hoops at the very least). The U.K. is expected to allow the Serbian to defend his title at Wimbledon.
No one would be happier than I if Djokovic never gained another fan, or earned criticism for his temper or his attitude. No one would be more thrilled than I if Djokovic’s Grand Slam Men’s Singles Titles stopped at 20 or if he never regained his number one ranking. But let it be because he didn’t win, not because he couldn’t play.
Ruthie Fierberg is a freelance writer, editor, moderator, and on-camera host. She will be loyal to Rafa Nadal until the day she dies. Find ways to work with her and subscribe to her newsletter at ruthiefierberg.com. Listen to her free podcast Why We Theater. Follow Ruthie Fierberg on Twitter (@RuthiesATrain) and Instagram (@ruthiefierceberg).