Australian Open relenting on a controversial stance on players’ health

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Few would argue that players should have to go through a series of health screenings before being allowed to compete in a sporting event.

The Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of the season and one of the most lucrative, has decided to let the rule lapse after many players were unvaccinated when the tournament ended last week.

Given this, 11-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer, winner in Melbourne this year, said he’d “like to see all tournaments have the same policy as the Australian Open” and be “very open about that and clear about that.”

In an announcement Monday, the Australian Open noted it needed to free up bodies for the players, as only a fraction of players at the championship were immune to the flu, as mandated by the World Health Organization.

“We’ve had plenty of cases that have run up at the Open without anyone really knowing about it for a while and we were faced with a real challenge of trying to give every player that would get invited to play the opportunity to do that,” Scott Baldwin, the tournament’s head of planning and competition, told reporters Monday.

Participation in the Grand Slam is voluntary and if someone isn’t up to date with vaccinations they can be sent home during tournaments. On arrival at the tournament players are exposed to the virus — there have been six cases so far this year.

The Australian Open, which started on Jan. 15, played it close to the vest by leaving open whether the 11 unvaccinated players were requesting exemptions. While organizers declined to confirm, several players were able to legally escape to an empty locker room to administer their immunizations at the championship.

“When we see an opportunity to reduce the potential virus, we’re looking to try and do that,” said Craig Tiley, chief executive of Tennis Australia.

Despite the move, Barbara Laurelli, director of sports communicable diseases at the WHO, called the problem “unfortunately not rare,” saying every year “we have a few isolated outbreaks” where “people may not have received all their vaccines.”

Though the tournament defended the medical exemption, Tiley also admitted he was “not quite sure of the motivation” behind the players who did not comply.

“It may be that the players, themselves, are seeking exemptions for any personal reasons, either because they feel they can’t afford it or don’t think they should have to,” Tiley said.

Despite their decision to take a moment to rest, the 11 players and their coaches have been given permission to participate in tournaments this year to keep the stars in the spotlight, according to the tournament organizers.

In 2017, 11 players, nine of whom are absent, have given up invitations to the tournament. Of the remaining 56 players, 46 are full or partial exemptions, including the top eight ranked players.

One of the exceptions is 14-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, who was not vaccinated as a baby, the tournament organizers said.

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