Novak Djokovic, a Master on the Court, Keeps Making Errors Off It

Novak Djokovic, a Master on the Court, Keeps Making Errors Off It

In April 2020, with the professional tennis tour suspended since of the coronavirus pandemic, Novak Djokovic took section in a Facebook Reside chat with some fellow Serbian athletes. For the duration of their discussion, Djokovic, well known for his punishing teaching regimen, abstemious diet and fondness for New Age beliefs, mentioned he was “opposed to vaccination” and “wouldn’t want to be compelled by someone to consider a vaccine in purchase to be capable to journey.”

“But if it turns into obligatory, what will take place? I will have to make a determination,” he reported.

A lot more than a calendar year and a fifty percent afterwards, Djokovic’s decision to request a health-related exemption to the Australian Open’s vaccine prerequisite has become a debacle for tennis — and one particular of the most weird episodes however served up by the pandemic. Djokovic, 34, has finished perhaps irreparable hurt to his individual picture. It is a bitter twist for a player who has long craved the adoration lavished on his main rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and it is a sad coda to what is widely viewed as the best era in the background of men’s tennis.

Djokovic arrived in Australia aiming to notch a record 21st Grand Slam singles title, which would place him a person ahead of Federer and Nadal and bolster his declare to becoming the most accomplished men’s player of all time. In its place, he now finds himself at the middle of a world-wide controversy that turns on some of the most divisive difficulties lifted by the pandemic, in particular the question of particular person flexibility as opposed to collective responsibility.

On Sunday, a courtroom in Melbourne denied Djokovic’s ask for to overturn the Australian government’s determination to revoke his visa and he left the nation, unable to compete in the tournament, which starts Monday.

Djokovic’s refusal to capitulate to an Australian government that had sought to bar him “in the public interest” mainly because he is unvaccinated has produced him a martyr in the eyes of some appropriate-wing populists and those people who oppose vaccines, and has elicited an outpouring of rage in Serbia.

Whilst Djokovic was sequestered in a Melbourne lodge home awaiting a court hearing on his entering the place, Nigel Farage, the much-ideal British politician and media determine who spearheaded the Brexit campaign, was in Belgrade, Serbia, expressing solidarity with the tennis star’s family members. Djokovic’s father in comparison his son to Jesus Christ and Spartacus and hailed him as “the leader of the absolutely free planet.” In Melbourne, a raucous group of Djokovic supporters chanted “Novak” and clashed with the police.

All of this is a strange flip of activities for an athlete who has usually been accused of attempting also hard to earn the world’s passion and who commands great regard within his sport, and not just due to the fact he has accomplished so a great deal successful. He’s a well-liked determine in the locker space, where by he is viewed as a sturdy advocate for gamers who are battling financially: In 2020, he co-launched a players’ association with the stated goal of generating tennis far more remunerative for those people down the ranks, though it is unclear what that group has completed given that. Djokovic also has distinguished himself with his philanthropy and with the graciousness he has proven Federer and Nadal. (“He’s a magnificent champion,” Djokovic mentioned of Federer right after beating him at Wimbledon in 2014.)

In particular person, he is affable and participating, with a eager desire in lifetime beyond the baseline and a palpable sense of gratitude for his great fortune. Djokovic grew up for the duration of the Balkan wars of the 1990s — he was in Belgrade when NATO forces bombed Serbia and expended quite a few nights huddled in the basement of his grandfather’s condominium developing.

Djokovic has explained that the expertise helped harden him into the champion he turned. But it probably also bred a feeling of imperviousness that has now led him astray.

This standoff in Australia also put a spotlight on some of the much more troubling features of Djokovic’s community persona. He has extended been a non secular dabbler, with a weakness for what some regard as quackery. A number of a long time ago, when Djokovic was mired in a slump, there was problem he experienced fallen less than the sway of a Spanish tennis mentor named Pepe Imaz, whose education philosophy, named Amor y Paz, or Love and Peace, emphasized meditation and team hugs. (“Human beings have infinite capacities and expertise, the difficulty is that our mind limits us,” Imaz claimed on his internet site. “Telepathy, telekinesis, and many far more factors are all doable.”) In a video clip on YouTube, Djokovic is demonstrated onstage with Imaz chatting about the “require to be able to look inwards and to create this connection with a divine mild.”

When the tennis tour was on hiatus for the duration of the spring of 2020, Djokovic did quite a few Instagram chats with the wellness expert Chervin Jafarieh. Through one particular of their discussions, Djokovic claimed that the mind could purify drinking water.

“I know some persons that, by way of energetical transformation, through the ability of prayer, via the power of gratitude, they managed to flip the most harmful foods, or it’s possible the most polluted h2o, into the most healing drinking water, since the h2o reacts,” he said. “Scientists have confirmed that in experiment, that molecules in the drinking water react to our thoughts to what has been said.” (“The men and women of Flint, Michigan, would love to listen to that news,” the tennis commentator Mary Carillo replied.)

It was through this identical time period that Djokovic exposed on Fb Reside his opposition to vaccines and vaccine mandates. A few months later, he hosted an exhibition tour in the Balkans that grew to become a superspreader function. Djokovic and his wife were being amongst those people who examined good for the coronavirus. In the push and in tennis circles, Djokovic was pilloried for staging matches — with fans in attendance — through a general public wellness disaster. But it was very little as opposed to the opprobrium he has faced this month, especially in Australia, the place the community is chafing under Covid limits, and the Djokovic struggle is actively playing out from the backdrop of an approaching nationwide election.

Again in Serbia, nonetheless, Djokovic is viewed as a victim who is being victimized simply because he is Serbian. “They are stomping all around Novak to stomp all in excess of Serbia and Serbian individuals,” Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, informed reporters. The Serbian overseas ministry put out a statement saying that the Serbian general public “has a robust impression” that Djokovic was “lured to journey to Australia in buy to be humiliated” and that it was emotion “understandable indignation.”

The Djokovic flap has appear at a time of resurgent Serbian nationalism in Bosnia, and it has also revived interest in Djokovic’s political views. On a stop by to Bosnia previous September, he was photographed with the previous commander of a paramilitary team that was implicated in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. He was also videotaped singing at a marriage with Milorad Dodik, the really hard-line Serbian nationalist whose separatist rhetoric is raising fears that Bosnia could once again fall into conflict.

Djokovic has produced comments more than the a long time that proposed he was at the very least sympathetic to Serbian nationalism. In a speech in 2008, he mentioned that Kosovo belonged to Serbia following it declared independence. On the other hand, he’s coached by a Croat, the previous Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, and is viewed by several in the Balkans as a conciliatory figure. People today about Djokovic feel that he is not as preferred as Federer and Nadal in part because he comes from a small nation with a negative reputation. But that’s not always an expression of Serbian nationalism, and there’s probable some truth of the matter to it.

The Bosnian-American author Aleksandar Hemon, who teaches at Princeton (and is a co-author of “The Matrix Resurrections” screenplay), prompt that what Djokovic truly thinks is virtually beside the position: His world-conquering success has designed him a mythological determine in Serbian tradition, the embodiment of Serbian greatness who has landed a crushing blow versus the enemies of his country.

“He has wonderful worth,” Hemon explained. “He’s sort of proof that we are far better than they feel we are.”

And similarly, the Djokovic controversy in Australia has performed into the perception of victimhood that animates Serbian nationalism — a belief that “the West hates him because he’s a Serb,” as Hemon place it.

The indignation in Serbia may not subside even soon after the Australian Open up finishes. If Djokovic continues to resist vaccination, his capability to vacation and to enjoy other tournaments could be confined. For the period of the pandemic, the greatest tennis player in the earth may well be an worldwide pariah. Paul Annacone, who coached Federer and is now a commentator for the Tennis Channel, stated the Djokovic predicament saddens him.

“It’s a damn disgrace,” he explained, “and I feel especially poor for tennis.”

This is the next time in a make a difference of months that tennis has uncovered itself at the middle of an worldwide dispute. The disappearance in November of the Chinese participant Peng Shuai, following she publicly accused a previous senior federal government formal of sexual assault, renewed concern about China’s human rights history and has forged a shadow around the Beijing Wintertime Olympics, which start in three weeks. In the circumstance of Peng, the tennis neighborhood arrived alongside one another to desire proof of her basic safety and effectively-currently being, and the response has develop into a resource of delight for the sport.

Not so for the Djokovic affair, which is purely an humiliation. Though it seems that bureaucratic bungling is at the very least partly to blame, Djokovic has been the architect of his individual difficulties. He submitted a visa application that bundled incorrect and perhaps misleading information, and had the temerity to present up unvaccinated in a place that has endured some of the world’s strictest Covid-19 lockdowns and that is sagging under the Omicron variant. At the quite minimum, Djokovic’s method advised insensitivity, even though his critics, whose quantities are expanding by the hour, are far more inclined to see it as callous indifference. His current admission that he experienced gone forward with an interview with a French journalist in December after supposedly contracting the coronavirus has caused specifically intense outrage. (The reporter claimed that Djokovic did not disclose that he had tested constructive.)

No matter whether it was miscalculation, vanity or some mixture of the two that led Djokovic to imagine he could display up in Melbourne unvaccinated and just play, he now finds himself isolated in the tennis environment. Number of players have publicly supported him. The previous environment No. 1 Martina Navratilova stated that she had always spoken up for Djokovic and felt that he got “a uncooked deal” from enthusiasts who have been hostile to him. But not now.

“I’ve been defending Novak for quite a few years,” she stated, “but I can not defend him on this one.”