Novak Djokovic, a master on the pitch, continues to make mistakes

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In April 2020, with the professional tennis tour suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, Novak Djokovic took part in a Facebook live chat with other Serbian athletes. During their conversation, Djokovic, famous for his punishing training regimen, sober diet and penchant for New Age beliefs, said he was “against vaccination” and “wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine so they can travel.”

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

More than a year and a half later, Djokovic’s decision to seek a medical exemption from the Australian Open vaccine requirement has become a debacle for tennis – and one of the most bizarre episodes ever. served by the pandemic. Djokovic, 34, has done potentially irreparable damage to his own image. It’s a bittersweet twist for a player who has long yearned for the adoration of arch-rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and it’s a sad coda to what is widely regarded as the greatest era in history. men’s tennis.

Djokovic arrived in Australia aiming to win a record 21st Grand Slam singles title, which would put him ahead of Federer and Nadal and bolster his claim to be the most accomplished men’s player of all time. Instead, he now finds himself at the center of a global controversy that revolves around some of the most divisive issues raised by the pandemic, particularly the issue of individual freedom versus collective responsibility.

Djokovic’s refusal to capitulate to an Australian government that has sought to exclude him ‘in the public interest’ for not being vaccinated has made him a martyr in the eyes of some right-wing populists and those who oppose vaccines, and sparked outrage in Serbia.

While Djokovic was sequestered in a Melbourne hotel room awaiting a hearing on his entry into the country, Nigel Farage, the far-right British politician and media figure who led the Brexit campaign, was at Belgrade, Serbia expressing solidarity with the tennis star’s family. . 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 chanted “Novak” and clashed with police.

This is all a strange turn of events for an athlete who has often been accused of trying too hard to win the world’s affections and commands enormous respect within his sport, and not just because he has won so much. . He’s a popular figure in the locker room, where he’s seen as a strong advocate for players in financial difficulty: in 2020, he co-founded a players’ association with the stated aim of making tennis more rewarding for those in financial difficulty. bottom rung, although it is unclear what this group has achieved since. Djokovic also stood out for his philanthropy and the kindness he showed towards Federer and Nadal. (“He’s a magnificent champion,” Djokovic said of Federer after beating him at Wimbledon in 2014.)

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

Djokovic said the experience helped him become the champion he has become. But it may also have spawned a sense of imperviousness that has now led him astray.

This standoff in Australia has also brought to light some of the more troubling aspects of Djokovic’s public persona. He has long been a spiritual lover, with a soft spot for what some consider quackery. A few years ago, when Djokovic was mired in a slump, it was feared he fell under the sway of a Spanish tennis coach named Pepe Imaz, whose coaching philosophy, called Amor y Paz, or Love and Peace, emphasized meditation and group hugs. . (“Human beings have infinite abilities and skills, the problem is that our minds limit us,” Imaz said on his website. “Telepathy, telekinesis, and many other things are all possible.”) In a video on YouTube, Djokovic is shown on stage with Imaz talking about the “need to be able to look inside and establish this connection with a divine light.

When 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 can purify water.

“I know people who, through energy transformation, through the power of prayer, through the power of gratitude, have been able to transform the most toxic food, or perhaps the most polluted water, into the cleanest water. more healing, because the water reacts,” he said. “Scientists have proven that in the experiment, that water molecules react to our emotions to what was said.” (“The people of Flint, Michigan would love to hear this news,” replied tennis commentator Mary Carillo.)

It was during this same period that Djokovic revealed on Facebook Live his opposition to vaccines and vaccine mandates. A few months later, he organized an exhibition tour in the Balkans which became a very widespread event. Djokovic and his wife were among those who tested positive for coronavirus. In the press and in tennis circles, Djokovic has been pilloried for hosting matches – with fans in attendance – during a public health crisis. But that was nothing compared to the opprobrium he faced this month, particularly in Australia, where the public is chafing at Covid restrictions, and Djokovic’s fight is taking place against the backdrop of a next national election.

Back in Serbia, however, Djokovic is seen as a victim who is a victim because he is Serbian. “They are trampling Novak to trample all of Serbia and the Serbian people,” Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, told reporters. The Serbian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that the Serbian public “has a strong impression” that Djokovic was “incited to travel to Australia in order to be humiliated” and that he felt “understandable outrage”.

The Djokovic wave came at a time of the resurgence of Serbian nationalism in Bosnia, and it also rekindled interest in Djokovic’s political views. During a visit to Bosnia last September, he photography with the former commander of a paramilitary group involved in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. He was also filmed singing at a wedding with Milorad Dodik, the hardline Serbian nationalist whose separatist rhetoric raises fears that Bosnia does not fall into conflict again.

Djokovic has made comments over the years that suggested he was at least supportive of Serbian nationalism. In a speech in 2008, he declared that Kosovo belonged to Serbia after its declaration of independence. On the other hand, he is coached by a Croatian, former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, and is seen by many in the Balkans as a conciliatory figure. People around Djokovic think he’s 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 that.

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

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

And similarly, the Djokovic controversy in Australia has played into the sense of victimhood that drives Serbian nationalism – a belief that “the West hates him because he’s Serbian”, as Hemon put it.

The 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. For the duration of 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 Djokovic’s situation saddens him.

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

This is the second time in a few months that tennis has found itself at the center of an international dispute. The November disappearance of Chinese player Peng Shuai, after she publicly accused a former senior government official of sexual assault, has rekindled concerns about China’s human rights record and cast a shadow over the Olympics Beijing winter season, which starts in three weeks. In Peng’s case, the tennis community has come together to demand proof of his safety and well-being, and the response has become a source of pride for the sport.

This is not the case for the Djokovic case, which is purely embarrassing. If it seems bureaucratic clumsiness is at least partly to blame, Djokovic has been the architect of his own problems. He submitted a visa application that included incorrect and possibly misleading information, and had the temerity to show up unvaccinated in a country that has endured some of the world’s toughest and collapsing Covid-19 lockdowns. under the Omicron variant. At the very least, Djokovic’s approach suggests callousness, though his detractors, whose numbers are growing by the hour, are more inclined to see it as callous indifference. His recent admission that he gave an interview to a French journalist in December after he allegedly contracted the coronavirus has sparked particularly intense outrage. (The reporter said Djokovic did not disclose that he had tested positive.)

Whether it was miscalculation, arrogance or a combination of the two that led Djokovic to think he could show up to Melbourne unvaccinated and just play, he now finds himself isolated in the world of tennis. Few players have publicly supported him. Former world number 1 Martina Navratilova said she had always stood up for Djokovic and felt he was getting “a raw deal” from fans who were hostile to him. But not now.

“I’ve defended Novak for many years,” she said, “but I can’t defend him on this one.”

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