How Novak Djokovic became the world’s most controversial athlete

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It’s the story the world can’t get enough of: Champion tennis star Novak Djokovic stranded in a mid-range Melbourne city center hotel room normally reserved for detained asylum seekers.

Like anyone traveling in the country, all professional tennis players arriving for the Australian Open must be vaccinated or have medical exemption. Djokovic, who described himself in April 2020 as “opposed to vaccination”, fell into the latter camp. Or at least that’s what he thought.

While in the air, it turned out that he was planning to enter Australia on a visa which apparently did not allow exemptions for unvaccinated people. It was quickly canceled. Djokovic was questioned by border force officers for several hours before being taken to the Park Hotel in Melbourne’s central business district. At the time, his wife Jelena wrote on Instagram: “The one law we should all obey across every border is love and respect for another human being. Love and forgiveness are never a mistake but a powerful force. I wish you all good luck! Her mother, Dijana, said, “It’s not fair. It’s not human. I hope he will win. Horrible, horrible accommodation. It’s just a small immigration hotel, if it’s a hotel at all.

This morning a judge ordered his immediate release and now the nine-time Australian Open champion looks set to defend his title. The events of the past few days have sparked a huge controversy around the world and a furious backlash in his native Serbia, where the term “national hero” is doing him a disservice.

Still, for those who have followed Djokovic’s career, this incident comes as no total surprise, nor is it the first time that a man who longs for love and universal recognition has become a figure of mistrust and disdain.

Djokovic seen in the back of a car in Melbourne

/ AFPTV / AFP via Getty Images

Professional athletes are consumed by what goes into their bodies. A questionable plate of sushi the night before a big game can have serious consequences. Worse yet, a coach supplement that later appears on a banned list could result in a player’s suspension and the forfeiture of millions of dollars. Novak Djokovic takes clean life to the extreme.

Growing up in Serbia, his parents ran a pizzeria and creperie in Kopaonik, a ski town 200 miles south of the capital Belgrade. It may seem like an idyllic diet for any child, without the fact that two decades later Djokovic found out he had celiac and advised him to avoid wheat, dairy, and tomatoes. Three somewhat essential ingredients in the pizza making process.

Before this discovery, in 2010, Djokovic was considered an extremely talented player but a light physical weight. He was so well-known for withdrawing from games and for citing various physical ailments that after one such incident at the 2008 US Open, US player Andy Roddick jokingly suggested that Djokovic may be suffering from ” avian flu, anthrax, SARS ”.

This is not the first time that a man who longs for love and universal recognition has become a figure of distrust and disdain.

Following a change in his now plant-based diet and an overhaul of his daily routine – which he told The New York Times last year, is to get up before dawn, watch the sunrise. sun and participate in hug and song sessions with his family – Djokovic quickly became the number one player in the world, dominating not only 2011 – in which he won three major titles – but the entire decade.

We understand why he has to be so careful with what he puts in his body. The problem was, he applied this approach to much of scientific orthodoxy and said he was opposed to allowing another foreign agent into his body: vaccines.

Tennis has long been characterized by great rivalries with marked contrasts. Chris Evert’s basic metronomic game against Martin Navratilova’s relentless serve-volley; Bjorn Borg’s “Ice-Man” personality juxtaposed with John McEnroe’s “Superbrat”. And men’s tennis was in poor health at the end of 2006. The Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry was nearing its zenith, and no one – let alone their legions of fans – was calling a third man.

Star power: Djokovic could be the most complete tennis player of the modern era

/ Pennsylvania

Still, there was Novak Djokovic, about to take the tennis world by storm – or ruin the party, depending on your perspective. And that feeling of three being one too many – that supporters had already chosen one side, Federer or Nadal – has haunted the Serbian’s career.

“People love Federer and Nadal,” says Christ Bowers, author of Novak Djokovic and the rise of Serbia. “Federer is one step ahead of diplomacy and Nadal is lovable. Djokovic is a warrior. He can be very dignified for large expanses, but then it all comes out.”

Djokovic is perhaps the most complete tennis player of the modern era. A better backhand than Federer and a more powerful serve than Nadal, his movement over the ubiquitous hard surfaces of the tour represents several evolutionary leaps. Still, he doesn’t have the easy diplomatic skills of Federer and Nadal, or at least he’s able to hide his annoyance less easily. He can be finicky and doesn’t understand why he doesn’t get the respect and love that comes so naturally from his big rivals, locked together on 20 major titles each.

“He’s arguably the greatest player of all time, but he doesn’t feel like he doesn’t have the credit,” Bowers said. Djokovic, who speaks fluent English, often feels that his good intentions have been lost in the translation. His behavior during the Covid-19 pandemic provides insight into why this could be.

Neither Federer nor Nadal hosted an exhibition tennis tournament, the Adria Tour, in June 2020 – at a time when international sport had largely shut down – with full stadiums and no social distancing, which turned into a full super-spreading event. Nor did they take a live Instagram with “wellness” guru Chervin Jafarieh to proclaim that gratitude can turn “the most toxic food, or perhaps the most polluted water, into water.” the most curative ”. And they certainly wouldn’t try to show up in Melbourne, a city that has endured one of the longest and most stringent closures of any major city in the world, in a state where 92.6% of the population is doubly vaccinated, via a legal loophole. .

“One of Djokovic’s weaknesses is that he often doesn’t read the play,” Bowes explains. “He didn’t appreciate the strength of sentiment towards the unvaccinated that exists now, especially in Melbourne. He is a very sensitive man but he has blind spots.

Protesters: Djokovic fans hold up car in Melbourne

/ AFP via Getty Images

At times his preference for the spiritual and his aversion to accepted science hurt his career, as happened in 2017 when he delayed a life-saving elbow operation. But his beliefs can also have had an impact on others.

The Adria Tour is an example, but so is its vaccination status, which Djokovic kept secret all last year, adopting a policy of strategic ambiguity. This cannot necessarily be said without consequence.

As the world’s most famous Serb, he is revered in his home country. Yet Serbia experienced high levels of vaccine reluctance, and only 45 percent of the population received two doses. While part of this can be attributed to a long-standing mistrust of state institutions, it seems plausible that a strong pro-vaccine statement from Djokovic could have made a substantial difference in the country.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Djokovic. Tennis Australia and the Victorian government assured him that he could enter the country and participate in the event. And now he got caught up in a political game, in the middle of an election year. But ultimately, it only extends so far, as his peers have made clear. His big rival, Rafael Nadal, said of the situation that if he wanted to, he could play in Australia without a problem. “He’s made his own decisions, and everyone is free to make their own decisions, but then there are consequences. “

Djokovic in action

/ Getty Images for Lexus

Even though Djokovic competes in the Australian Open, Bowes believes his chances of winning a record tenth title are now gone. “Let him pass the first few laps, at some point he will have to call on the reserve tank and it will be empty.”

At the heart of the problem are two competing philosophies. Djokovic – like so many people opposed to vaccination – sees it as a mere exercise of the right to determine what goes into his body, after years of struggling with his diet and fitness. Many Australians see him as a wealthy and privileged man trying to escape the agreed rules of a strictly egalitarian society.

Whether Djokovic wins a record-breaking 21st major title or crashes in the first round, one thing is clear: his ultimate internal conflict – this burning fire to maintain agency and sovereignty over his body and decisions – over his desire to to be loved is far from being resolved.

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