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Djoker to villain?

The Telegraph tries to wrap its head around the drama that’s Novak Djokovic

Anannya Sarkar Published 17.01.22, 01:44 AM
Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic

As a tennis fan, I am appalled. But as a non-Novak Djokovic fan, I am not surprised. I mean, we are not just talking about the current world #1 male singles player who is tied for the contentious “GOAT” moniker with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at 20 Grand Slams a piece; but also someone who took his own, 1,000ft-long, $75,000 hyperbaric chamber to Flushing Meadows in 2019 and most recently, (in)famously talked about water molecules reacting to human emotions, during a recent Instagram Live session. In fact, he has a well-recorded history of his very public subscription to the sort of “woo-woo” Weltanschauung that made him give up gluten for more muscular strength on the advice of a certain Dr. Igor Cetojevic after an exercise of lifting his arms –— once while holding a loaf of bread and once, without. He is also known to champion the causes (and businesses) of the likes of finance-honcho-turned-wellness-guru, Chervin Jafarieh who throws his weight behind pseudoscience. However, while he is entitled to his own opinion, nothing has been collectively more damaging till now than the 34-year-old player with 10 million followers on Instagram taking a blatant and persistent stance against the Covid vaccine — sans any medical grounds for doing so. But we were not prepared for the drama that has unfolded in Melbourne since the Serbian landed there on January 5.

Since the onset of the pandemic, Australia’s stringent border policy and the Serbian’s anti-vax stance have both been very clear. Then it begs the question: Why was Djokovic granted the exemption to participate in the Australian Open in the first place? The rift over the decision between Tennis Australia, the organisers of the Grand Slam, and the election-bound Scott Morrison government became clear when the Serbian’s visa got cancelled twice. While with top players such as Roger Federer and Serena Williams not participating, the commercials and the viewership of the Grand Slam might have been reasons behind Tennis Australia’s decision to grant the exemption to Djokovic, it clearly has not defended that decision very well since. Though Morrison’s government still maintains that the visa was cancelled at the first go due to a technical mistake made by the Serbian’s team, the matter has clearly become very politically-fraught since then. Incidentally, alleged demands for a personal chef by Djokovic during detention and his kin’s insistence on involving everyone from the Serbian president to the Queen of England have not helped matters either.


With the men’s singles draw for the tournament still being up in the air, the issue has now garnered interest and strong opinions from across the spectrum of players and fans. Djokovic’s delayed admission of exposing French journalist Franck Ramella to the coronavirus by not isolating himself despite purportedly testing positive in December have all led to compounding the matter further. Unsurprisingly, the Serbian is now battling his visa cancellations like he would an opponent in a five-setter but most, like Martina Navratilova, have agreed that: “The best thing for Novak to do, I think, is to just say, ‘You know what? There were too many mistakes, not okay, I’ll be the only unvaccinated player here… Everybody else who isn’t vaccinated has been sent back. And the right thing to do is just go home.” However, like most, we also know that Djokovic, who has always complained about not being “adored” like Nadal and Federer, will not go home till he has tried till the very end to get a go at his 21st Major title in Melbourne.

But for someone so hungry to win, wouldn’t the most uncomplicated way of entering the competition be to simply get vaccinated? Serbia, according to a Reuters story, has reported 1,412,588 infections and 13,026 coronavirus-related deaths so far and its government has been incentivising people to get vaccinated with cash prizes. As for the rest of us, we all know people who have been lost to the pandemic and having a top sportsperson with a massive following romanticise his anti-vax views and behaviour in pursuit of glory on court is definitely not what I have signed up for.

Meanwhile, at the time of this newspaper going to print, Djokovic was preparing to fight it out in an Australian court, even as the courts at Melbourne Park continued to evade him and the only good to have come out of this spectacle so far are the memes. So while we await the results of this long match (John Isner and Nicolas Mahut can sit down) between the Serbian and the Australian immigration department, let the No-vax (sic) Djokovic memes keep rolling!

Pro speak

“In this situation, nobody is right and nobody is wrong — this is how I see it. Djokovic did whatever he was told before coming to Australia, where he had told the organisers clearly that he wouldn’t be vaccinated and then he applied for the exemption, which the organisers granted. Then he got his visa but when he arrived, they said it was not valid. So that’s where the misunderstanding is, I think. If Australia did not really want him to be there then why give him a visa in the first place? So this could have been handled better for sure. Australia has also gone through a lot of public pressure so I am sure it is not easy from their side as well. I think we can debate on this all day but at the end, they will decide what is right for them”

Sumit Nagal, professional tennis player

The situation could have been handled better by both sides. The rules were made clear and Djokovic did not want to get vaccinated for some reason but he got his visa and exemption. It could have been sorted out in a better way and it is also not fair for the other players. Yes, Djokovic is a great player but so is Nadal and so is everyone else playing for a fair shot at the trophy. He knew in advance that if he wanted to play in Australia, he had to be vaccinated. I don’t think all of this happened because of the commercialisation of the sport but yes, it was a mistake to give him the visa in the first place if they had to cancel it. If I was a player in the main draw, I would be upset. I agree with what Tsitsipas said about all of this making the rule-abiding players look like fools. The game is bigger than the individual and Djokovic wouldn’t have been here without the sport of tennis. This has been handled badly by both parties

Jaidip Mukerjea, retired professional tennis player

The whole situation has become such a mess and there are so many faults at all levels. As for Djokovic, he’s entitled to make a choice of not being vaccinated but he needs to accept the consequences that come with it. The rules should be the same for all the players. If he had Covid in December, he should’ve followed protocol. A person of his stature cannot come up with these kinds of excuses, especially after having a team who should’ve checked if all his paperwork was in place. There are other players who were denied entry and accepted it without any hue and cry. It’s not about giving him a chance to defend his title, it’s what the situation demands in these trying times as no one person is bigger than the sport and the world in general

Shivika Burman, former international player and current coach

Tennis-fan speak

The first thing that comes to mind is obviously the fact that Djokovic should now officially consider changing his name to “No-vax”. With his decision to remain unvaccinated, Djokovic has provided yet another reason for tennis fans to not embrace him — pun intended. As a Federer fan, I was actually looking forward to Djokovic not participating in the Australian Open. Other than being a threat to public health at large, Djokovic is also a threat to the “Fedal” slam tally!

Akhil Sharma, a corporate lawyer and a regular tennis player

Both the AO organising committee and Novak’s team could have definitely handled this situation better. Both have huge responsibilities and their actions have ripple effects. AO is dealing with one of the biggest tennis events of the year and with the current world number #1 at stake; and Novak has a huge fan base across the world that looks up to him. The situation could have easily been dealt with prior to Novak’s arrival in Australia, behind closed doors so as to not give rise to speculation and confusion in an already chaotic atmosphere. If Novak is indeed violating the vaccination rule of the country and is being exempted only because he’s an elite sportsman, then he shouldn’t be playing at the tourney. Rules and regulations must apply to all

Mrityunjay Jalan, a sports enthusiast

As a die-hard tennis fan, I am inclined to take a long, but dim, view of the fiasco. The roots of this lie in two things: commercialisation of a sport that is struggling to attract young people and within that, the Australian Open’s somewhat-precarious position amongst the Slams. Due to its location, AO doesn’t receive enough TV viewers worldwide. This is where I think greed crept in. With Federer out because of injuries, AO felt it must secure a marquee name in Djokovic at all costs. Whatever transpired then, between the tournament admin, Victoria state authorities and the medical advisors would shame the three witches of Macbeth! No, he shouldn’t be playing at AO. Djokovic is more a villain than the victim that his family and handful of die-hard supporters have been portraying him as in this ugly saga. He has repeatedly cocked a snook at Covid protocols from the start of the pandemic. Think of the Adria Tour and all the liberties he has taken during his so-called second infection in December. He claims to be played by AO, but he’s also played along. Besides, at the end of the day, tennis is a sport. It cannot and should not take risks with public health. If the pandemic has taught us a few things, it’s the need for a measure of humility and of a perspective that is longer than a few moments, both of which seem to be lacking in Djokovic

Debanjan Chakrabarti, director, British Council East and Northeast India; and a regular tennis player

Tennis-fan speak

Let’s accept that it is Djokovic’s choice whether he wants to take the vaccine or not. It’s still not up to him how a country chooses to control their border, or how a tournament sets its rules. Not only is he not vaccinated, he submitted false information on his travel form and has also openly admitted to being in public in Serbia, when he knew he was Covid positive. Furthermore, news outlets have reported that there are also real doubts to whether the Covid positive test he used to get the medical exemption is even legitimate. Other players like Stefanos Tsitsipas have also recently spoken out on this issue and claimed that it’s making them look like fools because they followed the rules and got vaccinated. I don’t think Djokovic should be allowed to remain in Australia, let alone compete

Anirudh Chirimar, owner of a tea exporting company and a tennis fan

My views on this topic are just questions to the void. Just as I cannot understand why he is against vaccination, I do not know why the man who is on his way to becoming the “GOAT” would even think about jeopardising that situation by acting irresponsibly? Both these questions can only truly be answered by that one man only. I am such a huge fan but honestly, slightly disappointed in how he has been conducting himself in this situation. He is most definitely entitled to his choices and opinions – but at what cost? Being the superhero he is on the court, he must come to terms with the fact that “with great power comes great responsibility

Nayantara Dasgupta, a marketing professional and a Djokovic fan

For an athlete who has had such tremendous success from a particular event, you’d think Novak Djokovic would have a tad more respect for the Rod Laver Arena and the Australian Open. From vague answers around him meeting a journalist while being Covid positive to feeble, PR-crafted apologies as to how he was mistaken, Novak has made this about himself in all the wrong ways. Should he be deported? Absolutely. Will the Australian Open miss a top contender? Yes. But it will do so knowing they have set the right example. Anything to the contrary would be immensely disappointing. RIP, common sense

Shourjya Nag, a corporate professional

I am perhaps one of the few people who supports Djokovic whenever he plays Federer, because somehow, I have never been a Federer fan. But the kind of irresponsibility, insensitivity and lack of ethics that the man has exhibited in this entire episode has ensured that I will never support him again, whoever his opponent may be. I completely agree with what Rafael Nadal has to say about this episode. It’s simple: too many people have died in this pandemic, and continue to do so. Anyone sensitive enough should consider it their moral responsibility to get vaccinated. And now, on hearing that Djokovic even conducted an interview with a journalist in person while being Covid positive, makes me feel he should not only be barred from playing the AO but should also be handed out a ban of a few months at least, and not allowed to play till he’s vaccinated

Priyanka Roy, Team t2

In my opinion, this whole fiasco could have been avoided. I’m sure there were certain rules laid down by the Australian government along with Tennis Australia with regard to those participating in the Australian Open. Djokovic has always been very flaky regarding his vaccination policy and there would clearly be repercussions regarding the same, which he faced these last few days. No man is greater than a country’s well-being and nobody is greater than the sport. If another legend of the sport, Rafael Nadal, can follow the rules, Djokovic can too. He should not be allowed to play this year. One rule for all

Raunuq Singh Roy, a corporate professional

I would always say that Djokovic is all but unbeatable at the Australian Open. But it is astounding that despite the nine AO titles, this is how he might go out! Being an anti-vax, having a false travel declaration, exposing people while infected — I feel he has lost a lot of fans on these grounds. Personally, I would have liked to have seen him claim his 10th win in Australia, but it might be (Daniil) Medvedev’s year!

Nikhil Bhambani, an F&B entrepreneur and a regular tennis player

Picture: Getty Images

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