In April 2020, with the professional tennis tour suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, Novak Djokovic took half in a Fb Dwell chat with some fellow Serbian athletes. Throughout their dialog, Djokovic, well-known for his punishing coaching routine, abstemious food plan and fondness for New Age beliefs, said he was “against vaccination” and “wouldn’t wish to be pressured by somebody to take a vaccine so as to have the ability to journey.”
“But when it turns into obligatory, what’s going to occur? I should decide,” he mentioned.
Greater than a yr and a half later, Djokovic’s resolution to hunt a medical exemption to the Australian Open’s vaccine requirement has develop into a debacle for tennis — and one of the vital weird episodes but served up by the pandemic. Djokovic, 34, has finished probably irreparable hurt to his personal picture. It’s a bitter twist for a participant who has lengthy craved the adoration lavished on his chief rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and it’s a unhappy coda to what’s extensively thought of the best period within the historical past of males’s tennis.
Djokovic arrived in Australia aiming to notch a document twenty first Grand Slam singles title, which might put him one forward of Federer and Nadal and strengthen his declare to being essentially the most completed males’s participant of all time. As an alternative, he now finds himself on the heart of a worldwide controversy that activates among the most divisive points raised by the pandemic, specifically the query of particular person freedom versus collective duty.
Djokovic’s refusal to capitulate to an Australian authorities has that sought to bar him “within the public curiosity” as a result of he’s unvaccinated has made him a martyr within the eyes of some right-wing populists and people who oppose vaccines, and has elicited an outpouring of rage in Serbia.
Whereas Djokovic was sequestered in a Melbourne resort room awaiting a courtroom listening to on his coming into the nation, Nigel Farage, the far-right British politician and media determine who spearheaded the Brexit marketing campaign, was in Belgrade, Serbia, expressing solidarity with the tennis star’s household. Djokovic’s father in contrast his son to Jesus Christ and Spartacus and hailed him as “the chief of the free world.” In Melbourne, a raucous crowd of Djokovic supporters chanted “Novak” and clashed with the police.
All of this can be a unusual flip of occasions for an athlete who has typically been accused of making an attempt too onerous to win the world’s affection and who instructions huge respect inside his sport, and never simply because he has finished a lot profitable. He’s a well-liked determine within the locker room, the place he’s seen as a powerful advocate for gamers who’re struggling financially: In 2020, he co-founded a players’ association with the acknowledged purpose of creating tennis extra remunerative for these down the ranks, although it’s unclear what that group has accomplished since. Djokovic additionally has distinguished himself together with his philanthropy and with the graciousness he has proven Federer and Nadal. (“He’s a powerful champion,” Djokovic mentioned of Federer after beating him at Wimbledon in 2014.)
In individual, he’s affable and fascinating, with a eager curiosity in life past the baseline and a palpable sense of gratitude for his luck. Djokovic grew up through the Balkan wars of the Nineties — he was in Belgrade when NATO forces bombed Serbia and spent many nights huddled within the basement of his grandfather’s condominium constructing.
Djokovic has mentioned that the expertise helped harden him into the champion he turned. But it surely maybe additionally bred a way of imperviousness that has now led him astray.
This standoff in Australia has additionally put a highlight on among the extra troubling elements of Djokovic’s public persona. He has lengthy been a non secular dabbler, with a weak spot for what some regard as quackery. A couple of years in the past, when Djokovic was mired in a hunch, there was concern he had fallen beneath the sway of a Spanish tennis coach named Pepe Imaz, whose coaching philosophy, known as Amor y Paz, or Love and Peace, emphasised meditation and group hugs. (“Human beings have infinite capacities and expertise, the issue is that our thoughts limits us,” Imaz mentioned on his web site. “Telepathy, telekinesis, and lots of extra issues are all attainable.”) In a video on YouTube, Djokovic is proven onstage with Imaz speaking concerning the “need to be able to look inwards and to ascertain this reference to a divine gentle.”
When the tennis tour was on hiatus through the spring of 2020, Djokovic did a number of Instagram chats with the wellness guru Chervin Jafarieh. Throughout considered one of their conversations, Djokovic claimed that the thoughts might purify water.
“I do know some people who, by way of energetical transformation, by way of the ability of prayer, by way of the ability of gratitude, they managed to show essentially the most poisonous meals, or possibly essentially the most polluted water, into essentially the most therapeutic water, as a result of the water reacts,” he mentioned. “Scientists have confirmed that in experiment, that molecules within the water react to our feelings to what has been mentioned.” (“The folks of Flint, Michigan, would love to listen to that information,” the tennis commentator Mary Carillo replied.)
It was throughout this similar interval that Djokovic revealed on Fb Dwell his opposition to vaccines and vaccine mandates. A couple of months later, he hosted an exhibition tour within the Balkans that became a superspreader event. Djokovic and his spouse have been amongst those that examined optimistic for the coronavirus. Within the press and in tennis circles, Djokovic was pilloried for staging matches — with followers in attendance — throughout a public well being disaster. But it surely was nothing in comparison with the opprobrium he has confronted this month, notably in Australia, the place the general public is chafing beneath Covid restrictions, and the Djokovic battle is taking part in out in opposition to the backdrop of an upcoming nationwide election.
Again in Serbia, nevertheless, Djokovic is seen as a sufferer who’s being victimized as a result of he’s Serbian. “They’re stomping throughout Novak to stomp throughout Serbia and Serbian folks,” Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, instructed reporters. The Serbian overseas ministry put out a press release saying that the Serbian public “has a powerful impression” that Djokovic was “lured to journey to Australia so as to be humiliated” and that it was feeling “comprehensible indignation.”
The Djokovic flap has come at a time of resurgent Serbian nationalism in Bosnia, and it has additionally revived curiosity in Djokovic’s political opinions. On a go to to Bosnia final September, he was photographed with the previous commander of a paramilitary group that was implicated within the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. He was additionally videotaped singing at a marriage with Milorad Dodik, the hard-line Serbian nationalist whose separatist rhetoric is raising fears that Bosnia might again fall into conflict.
Djokovic has made feedback over time that steered he was no less than sympathetic to Serbian nationalism. In a speech in 2008, he mentioned that Kosovo belonged to Serbia after it declared independence. However, he’s coached by a Croat, the previous Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, and is seen by many within the Balkans as a conciliatory determine. Individuals round Djokovic consider that he’s not as fashionable as Federer and Nadal partially as a result of he comes from a small nation with a foul status. However that’s not essentially an expression of Serbian nationalism, and there’s seemingly some reality to it.
The Novak Djokovic Standoff With Australia
The Bosnian-American author Aleksandar Hemon, who teaches at Princeton (and is a co-writer of “The Matrix Resurrections” screenplay), steered that what Djokovic truly thinks is sort of inappropriate: His world-conquering success has made him a mythological determine in Serbian tradition, the embodiment of Serbian greatness who has landed a crushing blow in opposition to the enemies of his nation.
“He has nice worth,” Hemon mentioned. “He’s sort of proof that we’re higher than they assume we’re.”
And likewise, the Djokovic controversy in Australia has performed into the sense of victimhood that animates Serbian nationalism — a perception that “the West hates him as a result of he’s a Serb,” as Hemon put it.
The indignation in Serbia might not subside even after the Australian Open ends. If Djokovic continues to withstand vaccination, his means to journey and to play different tournaments might be restricted. At some point of the pandemic, the very best tennis participant on the planet could also be a world pariah. Paul Annacone, who coached Federer and is now a commentator for the Tennis Channel, mentioned the Djokovic state of affairs saddens him.
“It’s a rattling disgrace,” he mentioned, “and I really feel particularly unhealthy for tennis.”
That is the second time in a matter of months that tennis has discovered itself on the heart of a world dispute. The disappearance in November of the Chinese player Peng Shuai, after she publicly accused a former senior authorities official of sexual assault, renewed concern about China’s human rights document and has forged a shadow over the Beijing Winter Olympics, which start in three weeks. Within the case of Peng, the tennis neighborhood got here collectively to demand proof of her security and well-being, and the response has develop into a supply of delight for the game.
Not so for the Djokovic affair, which is only a humiliation. Whereas it seems that bureaucratic bungling is no less than partly accountable, Djokovic has been the architect of his personal troubles. He submitted a visa utility that included incorrect and probably deceptive info, and had the temerity to indicate up unvaccinated in a rustic that has endured among the world’s strictest Covid-19 lockdowns and that’s sagging beneath the Omicron variant. On the very least, Djokovic’s strategy steered insensitivity, though his critics, whose numbers are rising by the hour, are extra inclined to see it as callous indifference. His current admission that he had gone forward with an interview with a French journalist in December after supposedly contracting the coronavirus has brought on particularly intense outrage. (The reporter mentioned that Djokovic didn’t disclose that he had examined optimistic.)
Whether or not it was miscalculation, vanity or some mixture of the 2 that led Djokovic to assume he might present up in Melbourne unvaccinated and simply play, he now finds himself remoted within the tennis world. Few gamers have publicly supported him. The previous world No. 1 Martina Navratilova mentioned that she had all the time spoken up for Djokovic and felt that he bought “a uncooked deal” from followers who have been hostile to him. However not now.
“I’ve been defending Novak for a few years,” she mentioned, “however I can’t defend him on this one.”