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In April 2020, with the professional tennis tour suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, Novak Djokovic took half in a Fb Reside chat with some fellow Serbian athletes. Throughout their dialog, Djokovic, well-known for his punishing coaching routine, abstemious weight loss program and fondness for New Age beliefs, stated he was “against vaccination” and “wouldn’t wish to be pressured by somebody to take a vaccine so as to have the ability to journey.”

“But when it turns into obligatory, what is going to occur? I should decide,” he stated.

Greater than a yr and a half later, Djokovic’s determination to hunt a medical exemption to the Australian Open’s vaccine requirement has turn out to be a debacle for tennis — and probably the most weird episodes but served up by the pandemic. Djokovic, 34, has achieved doubtlessly irreparable hurt to his personal picture. It’s a bitter twist for a participant who has lengthy craved the adoration lavished on his chief rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and it’s a unhappy coda to what’s broadly thought-about the best period within the historical past of males’s tennis.

Djokovic arrived in Australia aiming to notch a file 21st Grand Slam singles title, which might put him one forward of Federer and Nadal and strengthen his declare to being essentially the most achieved males’s participant of all time. As an alternative, he now finds himself on the heart of a world controversy that activates among the most divisive points raised by the pandemic, particularly the query of particular person freedom versus collective accountability.

Djokovic’s refusal to capitulate to an Australian authorities has that sought to bar him “within the public curiosity” as a result of he’s unvaccinated has made him a martyr within the eyes of some right-wing populists and people who oppose vaccines, and has elicited an outpouring of rage in Serbia.

Whereas Djokovic was sequestered in a Melbourne lodge room awaiting a courtroom listening to on his getting into the nation, Nigel Farage, the far-right British politician and media determine who spearheaded the Brexit marketing campaign, was in Belgrade, Serbia, expressing solidarity with the tennis star’s household. Djokovic’s father in contrast his son to Jesus Christ and Spartacus and hailed him as “the chief of the free world.” In Melbourne, a raucous crowd of Djokovic supporters chanted “Novak” and clashed with the police.

All of it is a unusual flip of occasions for an athlete who has usually been accused of attempting too arduous to win the world’s affection and who instructions monumental respect inside his sport, and never simply because he has achieved a lot successful. He’s a preferred determine within the locker room, the place he’s seen as a powerful advocate for gamers who’re struggling financially: In 2020, he co-founded a gamers’ affiliation with the said objective of creating tennis extra remunerative for these down the ranks, although it’s unclear what that group has achieved since. Djokovic additionally has distinguished himself together with his philanthropy and with the graciousness he has proven Federer and Nadal. (“He’s a powerful champion,” Djokovic stated of Federer after beating him at Wimbledon in 2014.)

In individual, he’s affable and fascinating, with a eager curiosity in life past the baseline and a palpable sense of gratitude for his luck. Djokovic grew up in the course of the Balkan wars of the 1990s — he was in Belgrade when NATO forces bombed Serbia and spent many nights huddled within the basement of his grandfather’s residence constructing.

Djokovic has stated that the expertise helped harden him into the champion he grew to become. Nevertheless it maybe additionally bred a way of imperviousness that has now led him astray.

This standoff in Australia has additionally put a highlight on among the extra troubling points of Djokovic’s public persona. He has lengthy been a non secular dabbler, with a weak point for what some regard as quackery. A number of years in the past, when Djokovic was mired in a stoop, there was concern he had fallen beneath the sway of a Spanish tennis coach named Pepe Imaz, whose coaching philosophy, referred to as Amor y Paz, or Love and Peace, emphasised meditation and group hugs. (“Human beings have infinite capacities and expertise, the issue is that our thoughts limits us,” Imaz stated on his web site. “Telepathy, telekinesis, and lots of extra issues are all potential.”) In a video on YouTube, Djokovic is proven onstage with Imaz speaking in regards to the “want to have the ability to look inwards and to determine this reference to a divine gentle.”

When the tennis tour was on hiatus in the course of the spring of 2020, Djokovic did a number of Instagram chats with the wellness guru Chervin Jafarieh. Throughout considered one of their conversations, Djokovic claimed that the thoughts might purify water.

“I do know some those who, by way of energetical transformation, by way of the ability of prayer, by way of the ability of gratitude, they managed to show essentially the most poisonous meals, or possibly essentially the most polluted water, into essentially the most therapeutic water, as a result of the water reacts,” he stated. “Scientists have confirmed that in experiment, that molecules within the water react to our feelings to what has been stated.” (“The individuals of Flint, Michigan, would love to listen to that information,” the tennis commentator Mary Carillo replied.)

It was throughout this similar interval that Djokovic revealed on Fb Reside his opposition to vaccines and vaccine mandates. A number of months later, he hosted an exhibition tour within the Balkans that grew to become a superspreader occasion. Djokovic and his spouse had been amongst those that examined optimistic for the coronavirus. Within the press and in tennis circles, Djokovic was pilloried for staging matches — with followers in attendance — throughout a public well being disaster. Nevertheless it was nothing in comparison with the opprobrium he has confronted this month, significantly in Australia, the place the general public is chafing beneath Covid restrictions, and the Djokovic battle is taking part in out in opposition to the backdrop of an upcoming nationwide election.

Again in Serbia, nevertheless, Djokovic is seen as a sufferer who’s being victimized as a result of he’s Serbian. “They’re stomping throughout Novak to stomp throughout Serbia and Serbian individuals,” Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, advised reporters. The Serbian overseas ministry put out a press release saying that the Serbian public “has a powerful impression” that Djokovic was “lured to journey to Australia as a way to be humiliated” and that it was feeling “comprehensible indignation.”

The Djokovic flap has come at a time of resurgent Serbian nationalism in Bosnia, and it has additionally revived curiosity in Djokovic’s political beliefs. On a go to to Bosnia final September, he was photographed with the previous commander of a paramilitary group that was implicated within the 1995 Srebrenica bloodbath. He was additionally videotaped singing at a marriage with Milorad Dodik, the hard-line Serbian nationalist whose separatist rhetoric is elevating fears that Bosnia would possibly once more fall into battle.

Djokovic has made feedback over time that advised he was at the least sympathetic to Serbian nationalism. In a speech in 2008, he stated that Kosovo belonged to Serbia after it declared independence. Then again, he’s coached by a Croat, the previous Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, and is seen by many within the Balkans as a conciliatory determine. Individuals round Djokovic consider that he’s not as standard as Federer and Nadal partly as a result of he comes from a small nation with a foul status. However that’s not essentially an expression of Serbian nationalism, and there’s possible some fact to it.

The Bosnian-American author Aleksandar Hemon, who teaches at Princeton (and is a co-writer of “The Matrix Resurrections” screenplay), advised that what Djokovic truly thinks is nearly irrelevant: His world-conquering success has made him a mythological determine in Serbian tradition, the embodiment of Serbian greatness who has landed a crushing blow in opposition to the enemies of his nation.

“He has nice worth,” Hemon stated. “He’s sort of proof that we’re higher than they assume we’re.”

And likewise, the Djokovic controversy in Australia has performed into the sense of victimhood that animates Serbian nationalism — a perception that “the West hates him as a result of he’s a Serb,” as Hemon put it.

The indignation in Serbia could not subside even after the Australian Open ends. If Djokovic continues to withstand vaccination, his means to journey and to play different tournaments might be restricted. Throughout the pandemic, the most effective tennis participant on the earth could also be a global pariah. Paul Annacone, who coached Federer and is now a commentator for the Tennis Channel, stated the Djokovic state of affairs saddens him.

“It’s a rattling disgrace,” he stated, “and I really feel particularly unhealthy for tennis.”

That is the second time in a matter of months that tennis has discovered itself on the heart of a global dispute. The disappearance in November of the Chinese language participant Peng Shuai, after she publicly accused a former senior authorities official of sexual assault, renewed concern about China’s human rights file and has forged a shadow over the Beijing Winter Olympics, which start in three weeks. Within the case of Peng, the tennis group got here collectively to demand proof of her security and well-being, and the response has turn out to be a supply of pleasure for the game.

Not so for the Djokovic affair, which is solely a humiliation. Whereas it seems that bureaucratic bungling is at the least partly accountable, Djokovic has been the architect of his personal troubles. He submitted a visa utility that included incorrect and probably deceptive info, and had the temerity to indicate up unvaccinated in a rustic that has endured among the world’s strictest Covid-19 lockdowns and that’s sagging beneath the Omicron variant. On the very least, Djokovic’s strategy advised insensitivity, though his critics, whose numbers are rising by the hour, are extra inclined to see it as callous indifference. His latest admission that he had gone forward with an interview with a French journalist in December after supposedly contracting the coronavirus has prompted particularly intense outrage. (The reporter stated that Djokovic didn’t disclose that he had examined optimistic.)

Whether or not it was miscalculation, conceitedness or some mixture of the 2 that led Djokovic to assume he might present up in Melbourne unvaccinated and simply play, he now finds himself remoted within the tennis world. Few gamers have publicly supported him. The previous world No. 1 Martina Navratilova stated that she had all the time spoken up for Djokovic and felt that he received “a uncooked deal” from followers who had been hostile to him. However not now.

“I’ve been defending Novak for a few years,” she stated, “however I can not defend him on this one.”



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