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By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday, January 12, 2022

 
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ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert tells Tennis Now if Novak Djokovic remains unvaxxed "maybe by 2023 you won’t be able to play any tournaments.”

Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve

Novak Djokovic is hoping to hang onto his visa while his Australian Open hopes hang in the hands of the nation's immigration minister.

The nine-time Australian Open champion has been practicing at Melbourne Park preparing to defend his title at the AO, which starts Monday. 

Report: Government Still Plans To Boot Djokovic

Meanwhile, Australian government officials are "still preparing" a case to cancel Djokovic's visa and send him packing out of Australia, The Herald Sun reports.

As a compelling and chaotic saga plays out with perhaps one final twist in this case before its climax in the coming days, what is the world No. 1's immediate future beyond Oz's blue hard courts?

What is Novak Djokovic's competitive future as an unvaccinated player during an ongoing pandemic when different nations and tournaments have varied vaccination policies?

We put that question to ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert during today's ESPN Zoom call with the media to promote the networks' exclusive Australian Open coverage starting Sunday, January 16th, at 7 p.m. Eastern time on ESPN.

Former world No. 4 Gilbert says if Djokovic—or any player— opts to remain unvaccinated then they face a limited competitive future this season and potentially a non-existent tournament schedule by 2023.

"COVID, two years on, is showing no signs of slowing up. The question you’re asking is a very valid question: How are you going to sustain on the Tour?" Gilbert told Tennis Now.

“I think there’s going to be numerous countries, if Novak chooses—or any player chooses—to be unvaccinated…I’m not sure how he’s going to get into the States to potentially play Indian Wells and Miami. How’s he going to get into Canada?

“I’m not sure every country if you’re not passing medical exemptions is [going to have] an exemption for COVID. There might be some for irregular heart beat. But it’s going to be a very difficult proposition to be a full-time player being unvaccinated."

Djokovic, who initially contracted Coronavirus during his controversial Adria Tour in June of 2020, tested positive for COVID again on December 16th.

Though he largely declined to discuss his vaccination status in pressers in 2021 calling it a private health matter, the 34-year-old Serbian was reportedly willing to remain unvaxxed and miss this month's Australian Open if he hadn't received an AO medical exemption issued by an independent panel last month.

Gilbert asserts unvaccinated players will be squeezed out of the pro circuit by pandemic safety protocol by 2023. 

“[Being unvaccinated] that can be your choice—but to travel and do the things you enjoyed had before COVID, the freedoms that you had, it's not about having money or not having money, I don’t believe you will have anywhere near the same luxuries," Gilbert said.

“Right now in Melbourne you can’t get into a restaurant anywhere being unvaccinated—you have to show your vaccination card. It’s the same in a lot of places. So I think those normal liberties that you had and you expect to have you won’t have anymore.

"So I think traveling the Tour being unvaccinated you know maybe you’ll only be able to play a few tournaments in 2022 and maybe by 2023 you won’t be able to play any tournaments.”



If the Winning Ugly author's prediction is prophetic and Djokovic remains true to his ideals and stays unvaxxed, what will it mean to his chase of Grand Slam history and ultimately the mythical GOAT title?

Gilbert suggests it could be a history-altering detour as Djokovic aims to scale the all-time major ladder.

"If you had asked me six months or nine months ago or even at the Open, I would have told you I thought he was well on his way to smashing the men’s record," Gilbert told Tennis Now. "I actually thought he would end up catching Margaret Court.

"I thought he might be [winning] 25 to 27 majors, but forgetting about his legacy, I do think if he chooses to be unvaccinated I think there will be numerous tournaments and other majors he will no longer be able to participate in if he chooses to stay unvaccinated."

 

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