Novak Djokovic, a master of the field, keeps making mistakes

In April 2020, when the professional tennis tour was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, Novak Djokovic took part in a Facebook Live chat with some Serbian fellow athletes. During their conversation, Djokovic, famed for his punitive exercise regimen, frugal diet and penchant for New Age beliefs, said he was “against vaccination” and “wouldn’t want to be forced by anyone to take a vaccine in order to travel.”

“But if it becomes mandatory, what happens? I will have to make a decision,” he said.

More than a year and a half later, Djokovic’s decision to seek medical waiver from the Australian Open’s vaccination requirement has turned into a tennis debacle – and one of the most bizarre episodes the pandemic has seen to date. Djokovic, 34, may have done irreparable damage to his own image. It’s a bitter turn of events for a player who has long craved the adoration bestowed upon his main rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and it’s a sad coda for what is widely regarded as the greatest era in the history of men’s tennis.

Djokovic arrived in Australia with the aim of clinching a record 21st Grand Slam singles title, giving Federer and Nadal a head start and cementing his claim as the most accomplished men’s player of all time. Instead, he now finds himself at the center of a global controversy involving some of the most divisive issues raised by the pandemic, most notably the issue of individual freedom versus collective responsibility.

Djokovic’s refusal to capitulate to an Australian government that tried to ban him “in the public interest” for not being vaccinated has made him a martyr in the eyes of some right-wing populists and those opposed to vaccines, and has led to a torrent of anger in Serbia.

While Djokovic was being held in a Melbourne hotel room pending a hearing on his arrival in the country, Nigel Farage, the far-right British politician and media figure who led the Brexit campaign, was in Belgrade, Serbia, to show solidarity with the family. of the tennis player. Djokovic’s father compared his son to Jesus Christ and Spartacus and hailed him as “the leader of the free world.” In Melbourne, a rowdy crowd of Djokovic supporters shouted “Novak” and clashed with police.

All this is a strange turn of events for an athlete who is often accused of trying too hard to win the affection of the world and who commands enormous respect within his sport, and not just because he has won so much. . He is a popular figure in the locker room, where he is seen as a strong advocate for players who are struggling financially: in 2020 he co-founded a players’ association with the aim of making tennis more rewarding for the lower ranks, although it it is unclear what that group has achieved since then. Djokovic has also distinguished himself with his philanthropy and the courtesy he has shown towards Federer and Nadal. (“He’s a great champion,” Djokovic said of Federer after beating him at Wimbledon in 2014.)

Personally, he is affable and engaging, with a keen interest in life beyond the baseline and a palpable sense of gratitude for his happiness. Djokovic grew up during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s – he was in Belgrade when NATO troops bombed Serbia and spent many nights in the basement of his grandfather’s apartment building.

Djokovic has said the experience helped him become the champion he became. But perhaps it also fostered a sense of impenetrability that has now led him astray.

This stalemate in Australia has also highlighted some of the more troubling aspects of Djokovic’s public personality. He has long been a spiritual enthusiast, with a soft spot for what some consider quackery. A few years ago, when Djokovic was in a slump, there was concern that he had fallen under the rule of a Spanish tennis coach named Pepe Imaz, whose training philosophy, called Amor y Paz, or Love and Peace, emphasized meditation and group hugs. . . (“People have infinite abilities and skills, the problem is that our minds limit us,” Imaz said on his website. “Telepathy, telekinesis and many more things are all possible.”) In a video on YouTube, Djokovic is shown on the stage with Imaz talking about the “need to be able to look within and establish this connection with a divine light.”

While the tennis tour was on hiatus in the spring of 2020, Djokovic did several Instagram chats with wellness guru Chervin Jafarieh. During one of their conversations, Djokovic claimed that the spirit could purify water.

“I know some people who, through energetic transformation, through the power of prayer, through the power of gratitude, have turned the most poisonous food, or perhaps the most polluted water, into the most healing water, because the water reacts, he said. “Scientists have proven that in experiments, molecules in the water react to our emotions on what has been said.” (“The people of Flint, Michigan, would love to hear that news,” tennis commentator Mary Carillo replied.)

It was during the same period that Djokovic made public his opposition to vaccines and vaccine mandates on Facebook Live. A few months later, he organized an exhibition tour in the Balkans that became a super spreader event. Djokovic and his wife were among those who tested positive for the coronavirus. In the press and in tennis circles, Djokovic was pilloried for hosting matches – with fans in attendance – amid a public health crisis. But it was nothing compared to the disgrace he has faced this month, especially in Australia, where the public is grumpy under Covid restrictions, and the fight against Djokovic is set against the backdrop of upcoming national elections.

Back in Serbia, however, Djokovic is seen as a victim who becomes a victim because he is Serbian. “They are stomping all over Novak to stomp all over Serbia and the Serbian people,” Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, told reporters. Serbia’s foreign ministry said in a statement that the Serbian public has “a strong impression” that Djokovic was “lured to travel to Australia to be humiliated” and that it felt “understandable outrage”.

The Djokovic valve has come at a time of resurgent Serb nationalism in Bosnia, and it has also revived interest in Djokovic’s political views. During a visit to Bosnia last September, he was photographed with the former commander of a paramilitary group involved in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. He was also filmed singing at a wedding to Milorad Dodik, the hard-line Serbian nationalist. , whose separatist rhetoric raises fears that Bosnia could enter conflict again.

Djokovic has made comments over the years that suggested he was at least sympathetic to Serbian nationalism. In a speech in 2008, he said Kosovo became part of Serbia after it declared independence. On the other hand, he is coached by a Croat, former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, and is seen by many in the Balkans as a conciliatory figure. People around Djokovic believe he is not as popular as Federer and Nadal, partly because he comes from a small country with a bad reputation. But that’s not necessarily an expression of Serbian nationalism, and there’s probably some truth in it.

Bosnian-American writer Aleksandar Hemon, who teaches at Princeton (and co-wrote the screenplay for “The Matrix Resurrections”), suggested that what Djokovic actually thinks is almost irrelevant: his world-conquering success has made him a mythological figure in the world. Serbian culture, the epitome of Serbian greatness who dealt a crushing blow against the enemies of his country.

“He is of great value,” said Hemon. “He’s kind of proof that we’re better than they think we are.”

And similarly, the controversy over Djokovic in Australia has played a part in the sense of victimization that animates Serbian nationalism — a belief that “the West hates him because he’s a Serb,” ​​as Hemon put it.

Outrage 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 could be limited. During the pandemic, the best tennis player in the world could be an international pariah. Paul Annacone, who coached Federer and is now a commentator for the Tennis Channel, said the situation in Djokovic saddens him.

“It’s a damn shame,” he said, “and I feel especially bad for tennis.”

It is the second time in a few months that tennis has been the center of an international dispute. The disappearance in November of Chinese player Peng Shuai after she publicly accused a former senior government official of sexual assault, has renewed concerns about the human rights situation in China and has cast a shadow over the Beijing Winter Olympics, which start in three weeks. In Peng’s case, the tennis community came together to demand proof of her safety and well-being, and the response has become a source of pride for the sport.

Not so for the Djokovic affair, which is pure shame. While it appears bureaucratic tampering is at least partly to blame, Djokovic has been the architect of his own problems. He submitted a visa application that contained false and potentially misleading information, and had the audacity to appear unvaccinated in a country that has endured some of the world’s toughest Covid-19 lockdowns and is sinking under the Omicron variant. Djokovic’s approach at the very least suggested insensitivity, although his critics, whose numbers are increasing by the hour, are more likely to see it as heartless indifference. His recent admission that he went ahead with an interview with a French journalist in December after allegedly contracting the coronavirus caused particularly intense outrage. (The reporter said Djokovic did not disclose that he tested positive.)

Whether it was miscalculation, arrogance or a combination of the two that led Djokovic to think he could come to Melbourne unvaccinated and just play, he now finds himself isolated in the tennis world. Few players have publicly supported him. The former world No. 1 Martina Navratilova said she had always spoken for Djokovic and felt he got “a raw deal” from fans hostile to him. But not now.

“I’ve been defending Novak for many years,” she said, “but I can’t defend him here.”