Australian Open tennis tournament organizers believe players who fail to undergo mandatory vaccinations at the sport’s major championships are putting the public at risk, according to the tournament’s chief executive.
Officials said Wednesday that mixed-sex teams taking part in the Australian Open would be vaccinated against meningitis, the bacterial infection that’s killed three Australian players in the past four years.
Australian organizers sought to reassure fans after efforts to persuade Serena Williams to not make her comeback at the opening grand slam of the year in Melbourne were rebuffed by the tennis world’s most decorated player.
Serena Williams has contended that completing the three-step meningitis vaccination protocol is impossible to fit into her tennis schedule, even though it’s been two years since the 35-year-old American missed a major tournament.
Women tennis players who choose not to be vaccinated will be unable to take part in the Grand Slam’s mixed doubles tournament. Organizers announced the new rules ahead of the tournament, which starts Thursday.
In an email exchange obtained by the Herald Sun, tournament CEO Craig Tiley made it clear he believes players need to be vaccinated.
“In all aspects we (Australian Open organizers) feel strongly there should be the vaccination,” Tiley wrote in an email, which he released to the Herald Sun. “Public safety should come before any player injuries or illness.”
Tiley said the three players who contracted meningitis between 2015 and 2017, including tennis player Daria Gavrilova, could all have had protection had they been vaccinated.
In March, Australian Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control had approved the three-step meningitis vaccination program for pregnant women, men with close contacts of pregnant women, and people aged 17 to 44. The program is due to begin in September.
Tiley said the shots can be given in more than 50 countries, and players should “oversee” their team to ensure they receive the vaccines.
There was no immediate comment from Williams’ management.
The latest outbreak of meningitis in tennis left Gavrilova with a broken bone in her right foot, leaving her unable to defend her Australian Open mixed doubles title last month with Swiss star Belinda Bencic. She’s still rehabilitating and hopes to be able to start training at the end of April.
Another Australian woman, Jacqui Dankworth, a sportscaster who appears on the popular Channel Seven Network, was diagnosed with the disease in January 2016.
Marion Bartoli, who won the French Open in 2013 as a 28-year-old woman, and Arthur Ashe, the first African-American to win a grand slam singles title, were among the sports stars who contracted the infection.
Tiley said that in the past five years, Australian Open-qualifying players have had only four cases of meningitis in a selection of tournaments across the country.
He said nobody should underestimate the risk of a player contracting the disease, or pass it onto others, adding, “We cannot keep sitting here and accepting this as a risk when we’ve been aware of this risk.”