This is the story the world can’t get enough of: Champion tennis star Novak Djokovic is trapped in a downtown, mid-range, Melbourne hotel room usually reserved for detained asylum seekers.
Like anyone traveling to the country, all professional tennis players arriving for the Australian Open must be vaccinated or be in medical remission. Djokovic, who in April 2020 described himself as “an opponent of vaccination”, fell into the latter camp. Or at least I have thought so.
While in the air, it was revealed that he was planning to enter Australia on a visa that apparently did not allow exemptions without vaccination. It was canceled immediately. Djokovic was questioned by Border Force officers for several hours before being taken to the Park Hotel in Melbourne’s Central Business District. At the time, his wife Jelena wrote on Instagram: “The only law that we should all respect at every level is love and respect for another human being. Love and forgiveness are never a mistake but a powerful force. Best wishes to you all!” His mother Dejana said: “It’s not fair. It is not human. I hope he wins. Terrible, terrible accommodation. It’s just some small immigration hotel, if it’s a hotel at all.”
This morning, a judge ordered his immediate release and now the nine-time Australian Open champion is ready to defend his title. The events of the past few days have sparked huge controversy around the world and a furious backlash in his native Serbia, where the term ‘national hero’ has harmed him.
Still, for those who have followed Djokovic’s career, the incident hasn’t come as a total surprise, nor is it the first time that a man with a longing for love and universal admiration has become a man of distrust and disdain.
Professional athletes get consumed by what goes into their bodies. A plate of dodgy sushi the night before a big match can have dire consequences. Worse yet, complementing a coach who is later on the banned list can result in a player suspension and millions of dollars in damages. Novak Djokovic takes clean-life to the extreme.
Growing up in Serbia, his parents ran a pizza and crepe restaurant in Kopnik, a ski town 200 miles south of the capital Belgrade. This might sound like a delightful diet for any child, were it not for the fact that two decades later, Djokovic discovered he had celiac and advised avoiding wheat, dairy, and tomatoes. Three ingredients are somewhat important to the pizza-making process.
Prior to this discovery, in 2010, Djokovic was seen as a highly talented player, but a lighter one. He was so famous for withdrawing from matches and citing a variety of physical ailments that after one such incident at the 2008 US Open, American player Andy Roddick jokingly suggested that Djokovic was suffering from “bird flu, anthrax, SARS”. can be.
This is not the first time that a man who craves love and universal admiration has become an object of distrust and scorn
After a change in her diet, which is now plant-based, and a change in her daily routine – which she told the New York Times last year, it included getting up earlier, watching the sunrise and attending hug and singing sessions is included. His family – Djokovic dominated not only 2011 to become the number one player in the world – in which he won three major titles – but the entire decade.
It’s understandable why he should be so careful about what he puts in his body. The trouble is that he has brought this approach to most scientific conservatism and is on record as opposed to allowing another foreign agent into his body: vaccines.
Tennis has long been characterized by great rivalries with sharp contrasts. Martin Navratilova’s relentless serve-and-volley versus Chris Evert’s metronomic bassline drama; Bjorn Borg’s ‘Ice-Man’ persona paired with John McEnroe’s ‘Superbrat’. And at the end of 2006 men’s tennis was in poor health. The Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry was reaching its peak, and no one – least of all his fans – was calling for the third person.
Yet Novak Djokovic was about to rock the tennis world—or ruin the party, depending on your point of view. And the feeling of being one of the three – that supporters had already chosen a side, Federer or Nadal – has influenced the Serb’s career.
“People love Federer and Nadal,” says Christ Bowers, author of Novak Djokovic and the Rise of Serbia, Federer is ahead in terms of diplomacy and Nadal is lovely. Djokovic is a warrior. He can be very coveted for big parts but then it all comes out.”
Djokovic may be the most complete tennis player of the modern era. A better backhand than Federer and a more powerful serve than Nadal, his movement on the tour’s ubiquitous hardcourt represents several evolutionary leaps. Yet he lacks the easy diplomatic skills of Federer and Nadal, or at least is less easily able to hide his annoyance. He can be fickle, and fails to understand why he doesn’t have so much respect and love for his great rivals, who are locked in 20 major titles together.
“He’s arguably the greatest player of all time, but he doesn’t think he won’t get the credit for it,” says Bowers. Djokovic, who speaks fluent English, often feels that his good intentions are lost in translation. His behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic provides insight into why this may be.
In June 2020 neither Federer nor Nadal organized an exhibition tennis tournament, the Adria Tour – at a time when international sport had largely shut down – without full stadiums and no social distancing, which was a full-fledged Super -Spreader changed to event. He didn’t even do an Instagram live with ‘wellness’ guru Chervin Jafarih to declare that gratitude can “turn the most toxic food, or perhaps the most polluted water, into the most healing water.” And they certainly wouldn’t attempt to show up in Melbourne, a city that has endured one of the longest and strictest lockdowns of any major city in the world, in a state with double vaccination of 92.6 percent of the population, through a legal loophole.
“One of Djokovic’s weaknesses is that he doesn’t read the room very often,” Bowes says. “He has not appreciated the strength of feeling about the unvaccinated people that currently exist, especially in Melbourne. He is a very sensitive person but he has blind spots.”
Sometimes his preference for the spiritual and accepted science has hurt his career, as it did in 2017 when he delayed career-saving elbow surgery. But his beliefs may have influenced others as well.
Adria Tour is one example, but so is the status of her vaccine, which Djokovic kept a secret last year while pursuing a policy of strategic ambiguity. It cannot necessarily be said to be result-free.
As the world’s most famous Serb, he is revered in his home country. Yet Serbia has seen a high level of vaccine hesitancy, and only 45 percent of the population has received two doses. While some of this can be attributed to a long-standing distrust of state institutions, it seems plausible that a strong pro-vaccine statement from Djokovic would have made a huge difference to the country.
It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Djokovic. He was assured by Tennis Australia and the Victorian government that he would be able to enter the country and take part in the competition. And now he is caught in a political game during an election year. But ultimately, it only extends so far, as made clear by his peers. His great rival Rafael Nadal said of the situation, he could have played in Australia without any problem if he wanted. “He made his own decisions, and everyone is free to make their own decisions, but then there are consequences.”
Even though Djokovic does compete at the Australian Open, Bowes believes his chances of winning a record tenth title are over. “Even if he gets past the first few rounds, at some stage he will need to call on the reserve tank and it will be empty.”
At the heart of this issue are two competing philosophies. Djokovic – like many who oppose vaccination – sees it only as his right to determine what goes into his body, after struggling with his diet and fitness. Many Australians see this as a wealthy, privileged figure trying to escape the agreed rules of a strictly egalitarian society.
Whether Djokovic wins a record-breaking 21st major title or is knocked out in the first round, one thing is clear: his ultimate internal struggle—the burning fire to maintain agency and sovereignty over his body and decisions—versus his desire to be loved, is nowhere close to being solved.