In April 2020, with the professional tennis tour suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, Novak Djokovic participated in a Facebook Live chat with some of his fellow Serbian athletes. During their conversation, Djokovic, famous for his punitive training regime, his abstinence diet, and his fondness for New Age beliefs, said that he was “against vaccination” and “didn’t want someone to force him to take a vaccine to be able to travel.”
But if it becomes mandatory, what will happen? “I will have to make a decision,” he said.
More than a year and a half later, Djokovic’s decision to seek medical exemption from the Australian Open vaccine requirement has become a disaster for tennis – and one of the most bizarre episodes to date served by the pandemic. Djokovic, 34, has caused irreparable damage to his image. It’s a bitter transformation of a player long-earned for the adoration lavished on his two main rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and a sad pacification of what is widely regarded as the greatest era in men’s tennis history.
Djokovic arrived in Australia with the goal of a record 21st Grand Slam singles title, putting him one lead over Federer and Nadal and cementing his claim to be the best men’s player of all time. Instead, he now finds himself at the center of a global debate revolving around some of the most divisive issues the pandemic has raised, particularly the question of individual freedom versus collective responsibility.
Djokovic’s refusal to surrender to the Australian government, which sought to ban him “in the public interest” because he was not vaccinated, made him a martyr in the eyes of some right-wing populists and those who oppose vaccines, and sparked an outcry in Serbia.
While Djokovic was being held in a Melbourne hotel room awaiting a court hearing on his entry into the country, Nigel Farage, the far-right British politician and media person who led the Brexit campaign, was in Belgrade, Serbia, expressing solidarity with the tennis star’s family. . Djokovic’s father compared his son to Jesus Christ and Spartacus and praised him as “the leader of the free world”. In Melbourne, a noisy crowd of Djokovic supporters chanted “Novak” and clashed with police.
All this represents a strange turn of events for an athlete who is often accused of trying too hard to win universal affection and is highly respected in his sport, and not just because he has so many victories. He’s a famous figure in the locker room, where he’s seen as a staunch defender of players who struggle financially: in 2020, he co-founded the Players’ Association with the stated goal of making tennis more rewarding for those in the standings, though it’s unclear what those have accomplished. group since then. Djokovic was also distinguished by his charitable work and the generosity he showed to Federer and Nadal. (“He’s a great champion,” Djokovic said of Federer after beating him at Wimbledon in 2014.)
Personally, he is friendly and engaging, has a keen interest in life that goes beyond baseline and a palpable sense of gratitude for his good fortune. Djokovic grew up during the Balkan wars of the 1990s – he was in Belgrade when Serbia was bombed by NATO forces and he spent several nights crammed into the basement of his grandfather’s apartment building.
Djokovic said the experience helped him become the champion he became. But it may also have generated a sense of impunity that now led him astray.
This showdown in Australia also highlighted some of the more troubling aspects of Djokovic’s public persona. He has long been a spiritual dodger, with a weakness in what some consider to be an imposter. A few years ago, when Djokovic was mired in a slump, there was concern that he had fallen under the control of a Spanish tennis coach named Pepe Imaz, whose coaching philosophy, called Amor y Paz, or Love and Peace, focused on meditation and group hugs. (“Humans have infinite abilities and skills, and the problem is that our minds limit us,” Emaze said on his website. “Telepathy, telekinesis, and many more things are all possible.”) In a YouTube video, Djokovic is shown on stage with Emaze. He talks about “the need to be able to look inward and make this connection with a divine light.”
When the tennis tour was on hiatus during the spring of 2020, Djokovic had several conversations on Instagram with wellness expert Chervin Jafariya. During one of their conversations, Djokovic claimed that the mind can purify water.
“I know some people that, through active transformation, through the power of prayer, through the power of gratitude, they have been able to turn the most poisonous food, or perhaps the most polluted water, into the most healing water, because the water reacts,” he said. “Scientists have demonstrated that through experiment, the molecules in the water react to our feelings of what has been said.” (Tennis commentator Mary Carrillo responded: “The people of Flint, Michigan love to hear this news.”
During this same period, Djokovic revealed on Facebook Live his opposition to vaccinations and vaccinations instructions. A few months later, he hosted an exhibition tour of the Balkans that became a super popular event. Djokovic and his wife were among those who tested positive for the coronavirus. In the press and in tennis circles, Djokovic has been ridiculed for holding matches – with fans in attendance – during a public health crisis. But that was nothing compared to the disgrace he has faced this month, particularly in Australia, where the public is outraged by Covid restrictions, and Djokovic’s battle rages on the back of the upcoming national elections.
Back in Serbia, Djokovic is seen as a victim of being Serbian. “They are trampling all over Novak to trample Serbia and the Serbian people,” Djokovic’s father, Srjan, told reporters. The Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement saying that the Serbian public “have a strong impression” that Djokovic was “lured to travel to Australia for the sake of humiliation” and that he feels “understandable indignation”.
Djokovic’s flap came at a time of renewed Serbian nationalism in Bosnia, and it also re-established interest in Djokovic’s political views. On a visit to Bosnia last September, he was photographed with the former commander of a paramilitary group implicated in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. He was also videotaped singing at a wedding with Milorad Dodik, a hardline Serbian nationalist whose separatist rhetoric raises fears of the possible fall of Bosnia. Once again in conflict.
Djokovic has made comments over the years suggesting that he was at least sympathetic to Serbian nationalism. In a speech in 2008, he said that Kosovo belongs to Serbia after it declared its independence. On the other hand, he is coached by the Croatian, former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, and is seen by many in the Balkans as a conciliatory figure. People around Djokovic think he is not as popular as Federer and Nadal in part because he comes from a small country with a bad reputation. But this is not necessarily an expression of Serbian nationalism, and there is likely to be some truth to that.
Novak Djokovic vs Australia
Bosnian-American writer Alexander Hemon, who teaches at Princeton (and is a co-writer of the screenplay “The Matrix Resurrections”), has suggested that what Djokovic actually believes is almost off-target: his success in conquering the world has made him legendary. A figure in Serbian culture, the embodiment of Serbian greatness who dealt a crushing blow against the enemies of his country.
“He has great value,” Haimon said. “It’s kind of proof that we’re better than they think.”
Likewise, Djokovic’s controversy in Australia has played the victim that motivates Serbian nationalism – the belief that “the West hates him because he is Serbian,” in Hemon’s words.
Discontent in Serbia may not subside even after the Australian Open ends. If Djokovic continues to resist vaccination, his ability to travel and play other tournaments may be limited. Throughout the pandemic, the world’s best tennis player may be an international pariah. Paul Anacon, who coached Federer and now works as a commentator for the Tennis Channel, said Djokovic’s situation saddens him.
“It’s a shame,” he said, “and I feel especially bad about tennis.”
This is the second time in a matter of months that tennis has found itself at the center of an international dispute. The disappearance of Chinese athlete Peng Shuai in November after publicly accusing a former senior government official of sexual assault has led to renewed concern about China’s human rights record and cast a shadow over the Beijing Winter Olympics, which begin in three weeks. In Peng’s case, the tennis community came together to demand proof of her safety and integrity, and the response has become a source of pride for the sport.
Not so for the Djokovic case, which is purely an embarrassment. While bureaucratic errors appear to be at least partly to blame, Djokovic was the architect of his own problems. He submitted a visa application with incorrect and possibly misleading information, and had the audacity to appear unvaccinated in a country that has experienced some of the world’s toughest Covid-19 lockdowns and that has waned under the Omicron variant. To say the least, Djokovic’s approach suggests insensitivity, although his critics, whose numbers are growing by the hour, are more inclined to see it as ruthless indifference. His recent admission that he went ahead with an interview with a French journalist in December after he contracted the alleged coronavirus caused outrage. (The reporter said Djokovic did not reveal his positive test result.)
Whether it was misjudgment, arrogance or a combination of the two that led Djokovic to believe he could appear in Melbourne unprotected and just play, he now finds himself isolated in the tennis world. Few of the players publicly supported him. The former world number one Martina Navratilova said she had always spoken out for Djokovic and felt he got a “crude deal” from fans who were hostile to him. But not now.
“I’ve been defending Novak for many years, but I can’t defend him on this,” she said.