The enigma of Novak Djokovic: Tennis hero turns antagonist in time of Covid-19
For a man who has spent his entire adult life flirting with genius and in machinations with image gurus, Novak Djokovic simply should not be finding newer ways to be hated as much as he is loved. Or, rather, disliked as much as he is liked. Tennis fans tend to ‘love’ Roger Federer and ‘hate’ Rafael Nadal, or vice versa. No such grand overtures for Djokovic; possibly because the third wheel is seldom missed and only grudgingly noticed. Djokovic is acutely aware of this.
“It is a fact that most fans support Federer and Nadal against me but that’s due to what they represent in world tennis,” Djokovic said as recently as February – the same month in which he had won his eighth Australian Open and 17th Grand Slam title over all, thereby putting himself two Slams behind Nadal and three away from the all-time record-holder, Federer.
If there was no coronavirus, Djokovic would’ve in all probability tied Federer and Nadal for Slam numbers sometime next year. But there is no ‘if’ before coronavirus; the global pandemic has already had an irreversible impact on the world of the sport, and now on Djokovic’s already precarious reputation as well.
That the world’s top tennis player has an unorthodox world view with an anti-science skew is well known: according to Djokovic, he found out he was allergic to gluten by pressing a slice of white bread against his stomach (it was the beginning of his dominance in the sport); he believes in telepathy and telekinesis; he once hired a coach who believed in levitation and long hugs; and he tried his best to avoid surgery for an injured shoulder before succumbing to medical advice.
Now, what was once seen as Djokovic’s private eccentricities, has caused public harm. Which brings us to the Adria Tour – an exhibition tennis tour organized by Djokovic that involved him and a few other top players from the region travelling to three Balkan countries (Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro) in the middle of a pandemic.
Perhaps hosting a tournament at this hour was egregious enough, but to do so without enforcing any Covid-19 protocols (no face masks, no social distancing) was simply Djokovic scoffing at the worst outbreak of our times. A fact later supported by videos of Djokovic, Alexander Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov, among others, dancing shirtless in a nightclub in Belgrade, the first city of the tour.
These actions were simply a natural extension of Djokovic’s kooky beliefs – many of which he has aired on social media during the worldwide lockdown. For starters Djokovic claimed that he is an anti-vaxxer. “Personally I am opposed to vaccination and I wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel,” he said on a Facebook chat. A few weeks later, Djokovic used his powerful platform to feature the voice of a quack who actually calls himself an ‘alchemist’. Chervin Jafarieh, an American former real estate broker turned ‘wellness guru’ and Djokovic entertained a discussion on how they could change the chemical make-up of water because water ‘is scientifically known to react with human emotions’. Jafarieh signed out of that conversation with a sarcastic wave of the hand and these words: “This whole Covid-virus nonsense, get out of here… This an exciting time to be alive.”
Then came the ill-fated Adria Tour. Dimitrov was the first to test positive for Covid-19 on the Tour, hours before his final against Andrey Rublev in Zadar, Croatia. The Bulgarian’s coach was next, followed by Djokovic’s fitness coach. By the time the Croatian Coric had tested positive (despite being asymptomatic), Djokovic had already refused to be tested in Croatia and had fled for Belgrade with his family.
“If Novak doesn’t get covid I’m gonna start blessing my water with positive vibes,” tweeted Tennys Sandgren, who not too long ago had to scrub his social media platform for his far-right views, now reemerging as a voice of reason. Sure enough, Djokovic and his wife Jelena tested positive in Belgrade, and he announced the news twice – first in the form of a tone-deaf statement and then later via a more apologetic note on his Twitter handle.
“Don’t @ me for anything I’ve done that has been ‘irresponsible’ or classified as ‘stupidity’ – this takes the cake,” wrote Nick Kyrgios, whose past indiscretions in the game seemed minor and inconsequential, certainly when compared to Djokovic single-handedly restarting a wave of Covid-19 cases in Zadar and making Croatia experience its worst daily figure since end-April. For the record, Kyrgios had spent the lockdown in Australia delivering food to the old and immobile.
This isn’t the first time Djokovic did as he pleased and was forced to pay the price for it. Back in the day – when he was a strange cross between a clown, a prince and a drama queen – Djokovic was known for taking far too many injury breaks, especially in matches he was losing.
It happened in Djokovic’s very first appearance in the quarterfinal of a Grand Slam, at the French Open in 2006. With Nadal two sets up, Djokovic wholly forfeited the third set. When this happened again, versus Nadal in the semifinal of Wimbledon 2008, eyebrows were raised. This time it was nearly at the end of the third set.
It almost happened again in the US Open that year, when Djokovic took two injury time-outs in the match before his quarterfinal against Andy Roddick. The whispers were that Djokovic was faking a plethora of injuries – including to both his ankles as well as his back – to avoid being squarely beaten by the American in the following match. When Roddick was told of Djokovic’s troubles in the press conferences, he shook his head.
“Both ankles? And a back?” Roddick said and the press room in NY didn’t stop laughing for a while. “How about a cramp… Bird flu… Anthrax… SARS?”
On Tuesday, Djokovic contracted Covid-19 for real. He has only himself to blame for it, while also having to now shoulder responsibility for the fate of not just the other infected tennis players but also their families and fans who turned up in Belgrade and Zadar at the assurance of an event organized by the greatest tennis player in the world today.