ATHENS – Greek tennis star Stefanos Tsitsipas – a role model to many – has been slapped down by the New Democracy government for refusing to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and saying it doesn't affect the young.
Tsitsipas said he would be vaccinated only if it becomes mandatory to keep playing on the professional circuit where he is ranked third in the world, willing to bend his principles to keep making money.
“He does not have the knowledge and studies to assess the need for vaccinations,” government spokesman Giannis Oikonomou was quoted as saying in Greek press reports. “Stefanos Tsitsipas is a great athlete, his skills in sports and his contribution to sports in the country is unquestionable,” he added.
“What is at stake, however, is his ability to assess the need for vaccinations or whether the vaccine has been tested for a sufficient period of time. And … he has neither the knowledge nor the studies nor the research work that would allow him to form an opinion about it.”
He stirred up the tennis world, which has other anti-vaxxers despite a number of players having been infected, when he told reporters at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati he was more worried about side effects than the Coronavirus.
“I am not against vaccines, but I don’t see any reason for someone of my age to do it – it hasn’t been tested enough and it has side effects – as long as it’s not mandatory, everyone can decide for themselves,” he told Greek journalists.
That put Tsitsipas, 23, in the ranks of many young who think COVID-19 is an old person's disease although it has spread more rapidly now among them, even with hospitalizations and deaths, targeting the unvaccinated.
“No one has told me anything. No one has made it a mandatory thing to be vaccinated,” he told reporters when asked if he would attempt to get vaccinated while competing in the United States ahead of the US Open.
“At some point I will have to, I’m pretty sure about it, but so far it hasn’t been mandatory to compete, so I haven’t done it, no.”
Oikonomou said instead listen to health policy experts and said Tsitsipas and other celebrities should be careful what they say because they are influencers and have many who idolize them. He is, behind NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo, Greece's most noted athlete.
“Those who through their excellent performance in other places are also a point of reference for wider social groups, it would be good to be doubly careful in expressing such views,” he said, essentially telling the tennis star to butt out.
Curiously, he was one of the leading figures in Greece's 2020 Stay Home campaign when a first lockdown was imposed, urging people to be cautious about the virus and not to go out unless necessary.
Anti-vaxxers in Greece have prevented the country from reaching a 70 percent benchmark of the fully vaccinated that health officials said is needed to beat back the pandemic and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis hasn't made it mandatory, apart from health care workers.
There's been an immediate backlash about his stance. Leading tennis coach Brad Gilbert, who guided Andrew Agassi and Andy Roddick to Grand Slam titles, calling him “very selfish” over it.
Kathimerini journalist Niko Efstathiou tweeted: “It would be wise to be a bit more diligent in picking the protagonists of information and awareness campaigns. The wrong choice can eventually backfire. Tsitsipas, who previously starred in the country's "Stay Home" campaign, is now a vocal ambassador for vaccine hesitancy.”
World number one Novak Djokovic – who survived the virus – said in April he hoped the vaccine wouldn't be mandatory for players to compete and refused to say whether he was vaccinated although having recovered from COVID-19.
Fellow 20-time Grand Slam winners Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal feel athletes need to play their part to get life back to some form of normality., noted the hews agency Reuters, as the vaccination question has divided the tennis world.