Novak Djokovic, last seen winning the Australian Open with a three-centimeter tear in his hamstring, has been back on the tennis court this week, steaming his way through the field at the Dubai Championships until Daniil Medvedev stopped him on Friday in the semifinals.
But as the tennis calendar gets serious again, with two of the most significant tournaments outside the Grand Slams scheduled to be held in California and Miami later this month, the Djokovic train seems destined to screech to a halt.
Djokovic, once again the world’s No. 1 men’s singles player, desperately wants to play next week at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., and later this month at the Miami Open. In recent weeks, he requested an exemption from the rule prohibiting people who are not permanent residents of the United States from entering the country if they have not been vaccinated against Covid-19.
To the great consternation of Djokovic and some of the biggest names in the sport, it’s not going well, and time is running out for Djokovic to withdraw from the tournament before his not being able to play leaves a giant hole in the top quadrant of the bracket.
John McEnroe, the seven-time Grand Slam singles champion and a television commentator, has called Djokovic’s inability to play in the U.S. “absurd.” If President Biden does not change his mind — and that is what it would take at this point — Djokovic must withdraw by Sunday or a player ranked about 100 spots lower may end up taking his favored spot on the draw sheet, Tommy Haas, the tournament director for Indian Wells, said in an interview on Wednesday.
Haas, a former world No. 2 who is from Germany, has been lobbying multiple organizations to try to find a way to get Djokovic into the U.S. The United States Tennis Association has been in touch with its government contacts but has stopped short of formally lobbying on Djokovic’s behalf.
“Novak’s situation is obviously frustrating for us,” Haas said. “We want the best tennis player in the world to be here. He’s writing me, he wants to be here. So of course, you’re like, OK, let’s try to make this happen. How can we figure this out that’s going to be realistic? But at the end of the day, unfortunately, that’s not in our hands and that’s what’s frustrating.”
A spokesman for Djokovic did not respond to an email seeking comment. Djokovic said earlier this week that he was still awaiting a ruling on his request for an exemption.
“Everything is currently in the process,” Djokovic said late last month in Belgrade, Serbia. “I have a big desire to be there.
Djokovic, who has won at Indian Wells five times, has not explained why he believes he should qualify for an exemption. He is not vaccinated but the only reason he has ever given for his choice is that he believes people should have the right to decide whether to get vaccinated.
The Djokovic situation isn’t the only bothersome development for the Indian Wells tournament.
Rafael Nadal, who is still recovering from a leg injury he sustained in the second round of the Australian Open, withdrew earlier this week. Nadal hates missing Indian Wells, and not only because he has won the tournament three times. Nadal often stays at the home of Larry Ellison, the founder of the tech company Oracle who owns the tournament, and Nadal also gets to play plenty of golf in downtime.
In another worrisome development for both Indian Wells and tennis, during a match in Rio de Janeiro last weekend, Carlos Alcaraz, the 19-year-old Spanish sensation, aggravated the hamstring pull that kept him out of the Australian Open. The injury forced him to pull out of a tournament in Acapulco, Mexico, this week. Alcaraz thrilled crowds as he won the U.S. Open in September, the last time he competed in America.
Even without some of the biggest stars, Indian Wells will always be one the highlights on the schedule. Players repeatedly rank the tournament among the best in the world. It is a destination for locals and tourists. The snow seems to have cleared out of Southern California for now. The overwhelming majority of the roughly half-million fans who attend the two-week event (including qualifying) come from outside the Palm Springs area.
It also helps that tennis in the United States is in the midst of a small boom. The U.S.T.A. announced last month that participation grew in 2022 for the third consecutive year, with more than one million new participants. Overall, 23.6 million people played tennis at least once in 2022, an increase of 5.9 million, or 33 percent, since the start of 2020, when the pandemic drove hordes of new and lapsed players back to the sport.
And yet, barring a last-minute change in policy or a decision to grant an exemption, the man who plays the sport better than anyone won’t be there.
It’s not clear why Djokovic believes he might qualify for an exemption. The only criteria he would seem to be able to meet involves proving that getting vaccinated would be harmful to his health or that his presence in the United States “would be in the national interest, as determined by the Secretary of State, Secretary of Transportation, or Secretary of Homeland Security (or their designees),” according to the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Last month, the House of Representatives passed a bill rescinding the vaccination requirement 227-203, with seven Democrats joining all Republicans voting in favor. Supporters of the bill said the U.S. policy is out of step with the rest of the world, where vaccination requirements for foreigners have largely gone away. The Senate has not voted on the matter, which, according to the C.D.C., will not end automatically in May when the Biden administration plans to end the Covid-19 national and public health emergencies declared in 2020.
Ending the vaccination requirement for foreign travelers will most likely require a separate order from President Biden ending the presidential proclamation that put it into effect.
Haas, the Indian Wells tournament director, said there is a silver lining to the absences of Djokovic, Nadal and possibly Alcaraz, at least for the other players.
“If I’m like a young American coming up, I’m like, listen this is my time to hold up the trophy,” Haas said. “Now from my point of view as the tournament director and one of the best players can’t compete here, it’s obviously a sad thing, a frustrating thing.”