In April 2020, with the professional tennis tour suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, Novak Djokovic took half in a Facebook Live chat with some fellow Serbian athletes. During their dialog, Djokovic, well-known for his punishing coaching routine, abstemious food regimen and fondness for New Age beliefs, mentioned he was “opposed to vaccination” and “wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel.”
“But if it becomes compulsory, what will happen? I will have to make a decision,” he mentioned.
More than a yr and a half later, Djokovic’s choice to hunt a medical exemption to the Australian Open’s vaccine requirement has grow to be a debacle for tennis — and one in all the most weird episodes but served up by the pandemic. Djokovic, 34, has executed probably irreparable hurt to his personal picture. It is 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 broadly thought of the best period in the historical past of males’s tennis.
Djokovic arrived in Australia aiming to notch a file twenty first Grand Slam singles title, which might put him one forward of Federer and Nadal and strengthen his declare to being the most completed males’s participant of all time. Instead, he now finds himself at the middle of a international controversy that turns on a few of 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 “in the public interest” as a result of he’s unvaccinated has made him a martyr in the eyes of some right-wing populists and those that oppose vaccines, and has elicited an outpouring of rage in Serbia.
While Djokovic was sequestered in a Melbourne lodge 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 leader of the free world.” In Melbourne, a raucous crowd of Djokovic supporters chanted “Novak” and clashed with the police.
All of that is a unusual flip of occasions for an athlete who has usually been accused of attempting too arduous to win the world’s affection and who instructions huge respect inside his sport, and never simply because he has executed a lot successful. He’s a widespread determine in the locker room, the place he’s seen as a sturdy advocate for gamers who’re struggling financially: In 2020, he co-founded a gamers’ affiliation with the said aim of constructing tennis extra remunerative for these down the ranks, although it’s unclear what that group has completed since. Djokovic additionally has distinguished himself together with his philanthropy and with the graciousness he has proven Federer and Nadal. (“He’s a magnificent 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 success. Djokovic grew up throughout the Balkan wars of the Nineties — he was in Belgrade when NATO forces bombed Serbia and spent many nights huddled in the basement of his grandfather’s condo constructing.
Djokovic has mentioned that the expertise helped harden him into the champion he turned. But it maybe additionally bred a sense of imperviousness that has now led him astray.
This standoff in Australia has additionally put a highlight on a few of the extra troubling points of Djokovic’s public persona. He has lengthy been a religious dabbler, with a weak spot for what some regard as quackery. A couple of years in the past, when Djokovic was mired in a droop, 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 skills, the problem is that our mind limits us,” Imaz mentioned on his web site. “Telepathy, telekinesis, and many more things are all possible.”) In a video on YouTube, Djokovic is proven onstage with Imaz speaking about the “need to be able to look inwards and to establish this connection with a divine light.”
When the tennis tour was on hiatus throughout the spring of 2020, Djokovic did a number of Instagram chats with the wellness guru Chervin Jafarieh. During one in all their conversations, Djokovic claimed that the thoughts might purify water.
“I know some people that, through energetical transformation, through the power of prayer, through the power of gratitude, they managed to turn the most toxic food, or maybe the most polluted water, into the most healing water, because the water reacts,” he mentioned. “Scientists have proven that in experiment, that molecules in the water react to our emotions to what has been said.” (“The people of Flint, Michigan, would love to hear that news,” the tennis commentator Mary Carillo replied.)
It was throughout this similar interval that Djokovic revealed on Facebook Live his opposition to vaccines and vaccine mandates. A couple of months later, he hosted an exhibition tour in the Balkans that turned a superspreader occasion. Djokovic and his spouse had been amongst those that examined optimistic for the coronavirus. In the press and in tennis circles, Djokovic was pilloried for staging matches — with followers in attendance — throughout a public well being disaster. But it was nothing in comparison with the opprobrium he has confronted this month, notably in Australia, the place the public is chafing beneath Covid restrictions, and the Djokovic combat is enjoying out towards the backdrop of an upcoming nationwide election.
Back in Serbia, nevertheless, Djokovic is seen as a sufferer who’s being victimized as a result of he’s Serbian. “They are stomping all over Novak to stomp all over Serbia and Serbian people,” Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, instructed reporters. The Serbian international ministry put out a assertion saying that the Serbian public “has a strong impression” that Djokovic was “lured to travel to Australia in order to be humiliated” and that it was feeling “understandable 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 beliefs. On a go to to Bosnia final September, he was photographed with the former commander of a paramilitary group that was implicated in the 1995 Srebrenica bloodbath. He was additionally videotaped singing at a wedding ceremony with Milorad Dodik, the hard-line Serbian nationalist whose separatist rhetoric is elevating fears that Bosnia may once more fall into battle.
Djokovic has made feedback over the years that urged he was a minimum of sympathetic to Serbian nationalism. In a speech in 2008, he mentioned that Kosovo belonged to Serbia after it declared independence. On the different hand, he’s coached by a Croat, the former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, and is seen by many in the Balkans as a conciliatory determine. People round Djokovic imagine that he’s not as widespread as Federer and Nadal partially as a result of he comes from a small nation with a unhealthy fame. But that’s not essentially an expression of Serbian nationalism, and there’s possible some fact 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), urged that what Djokovic truly thinks is sort of beside the level: His world-conquering success has made him a mythological determine in Serbian tradition, the embodiment of Serbian greatness who has landed a crushing blow towards the enemies of his nation.
“He has great value,” Hemon mentioned. “He’s kind of evidence that we are better than they think we are.”
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 because he’s a Serb,” as Hemon put it.
The indignation in Serbia could not subside even after the Australian Open ends. If Djokovic continues to withstand vaccination, his potential to journey and to play different tournaments might be restricted. For the period of the pandemic, the greatest tennis participant in the world could also be a global pariah. Paul Annacone, who coached Federer and is now a commentator for the Tennis Channel, mentioned the Djokovic scenario saddens him.
“It’s a damn shame,” he mentioned, “and I feel especially bad for tennis.”
This is the second time in a matter of months that tennis has discovered itself at the middle of a global dispute. The disappearance in November of the Chinese participant Peng Shuai, after she publicly accused a former senior authorities official of sexual assault, renewed concern about China’s human rights file and has forged a shadow over the Beijing Winter Olympics, which start in three weeks. In the case of Peng, the tennis neighborhood got here collectively to demand proof of her security and well-being, and the response has grow to be a supply of delight for the sport.
Not so for the Djokovic affair, which is only a humiliation. While it seems that bureaucratic bungling is a minimum of partly responsible, Djokovic has been the architect of his personal troubles. He submitted a visa utility that included incorrect and presumably deceptive data, and had the temerity to indicate up unvaccinated in a nation that has endured a few of the world’s strictest Covid-19 lockdowns and that’s sagging beneath the Omicron variant. At the very least, Djokovic’s method urged insensitivity, though his critics, whose numbers are rising by the hour, are extra inclined to see it as callous indifference. His latest admission that he had gone forward with an interview with a French journalist in December after supposedly contracting the coronavirus has brought about particularly intense outrage. (The reporter mentioned that Djokovic didn’t disclose that he had examined optimistic.)
Whether it was miscalculation, vanity or some mixture of the two that led Djokovic to suppose he might present up in Melbourne unvaccinated and simply play, he now finds himself remoted in the tennis world. Few gamers have publicly supported him. The former world No. 1 Martina Navratilova mentioned that she had all the time spoken up for Djokovic and felt that he bought “a raw deal” from followers who had been hostile to him. But not now.
“I’ve been defending Novak for many years,” she mentioned, “but I cannot defend him on this one.”