By G9ija

World number one Novak Djokovic said Tuesday that he was heading to the Australian Open to defend his title after being granted a medical exemption to play.

All participants at the opening Grand Slam of the year, which starts on January 17, need to be vaccinated against Covid-19 or have the exemption, which is assessed by an independent panel of experts.

The Serb has repeatedly refused to confirm if he has been inoculated, with his participation at Melbourne Park the subject of intense speculation after he pulled out of the ongoing ATP Cup in Sydney.

“I’ve spent fantastic quality time with my loved ones over the break and today I’m heading Down Under with an exemption permission. Let’s go 2022!” the nine-time Australian Open winner, who beat Daniil Medvedev in last year’s final, said on Instagram.

His post was accompanied by a picture of the 34-year-old at an airport, looking relaxed, with his bags on a trolley.

“Djokovic applied for a medical exemption which was granted following a rigorous review process involving two separate independent panels of medical experts,” Tennis Australia said in a statement.

– ‘Genuine reason’ –

Tournament director Craig Tiley last week confirmed a number of players had been granted exemptions, without naming Djokovic, while explaining the process involved.

“There are two medical panels that assess any application, and they assess it in a blind way. They don’t know who the applicant is,” he told reporters.

“Against the ATAGI [Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation] guidelines, an exemption gets granted or not. The reason for granting that exemption remains private, between the panel and the applicant.”

He said on Tuesday there had to have been a “genuine reason” to grant an exemption.

“Central to this process was that the decisions were made by independent medical experts and that every applicant was given due consideration,” he said.

Djokovic has previously expressed his opposition to the Covid-19 vaccine and his father Srdjan said in late November that his son would probably not play in Melbourne, accusing the organisers of “blackmail”.

Government officials in Victoria state, which hosts the Australian Open, had been adamant for months that only vaccinated players would be able to play the tournament.

“They’re the rules. Medical exemptions are just that — it’s not a loophole for privileged tennis players,” the state’s Deputy Premier James Merlino said recently.

Confirmation that the Serbian superstar is en route sets the scene for a showdown with arch-rival Rafael Nadal, with both gunning for a record 21st Grand Slam title.

The Spanish superstar is already in Melbourne preparing after recovering from the coronavirus.

Fellow 20-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer is sidelined by injury and not travelling to Australia.