Tennis Australia and Novak Djokovic have not been each other’s best friends of late, but this public persecution of Tennis’ biggest star is more bureaucratic hubris than the enlightened response it wants to dress up as.
Devil’s Advocate is a rolling column that sees the world differently and argues for unpopular opinions of the day. This column, the writer acknowledges, can also be viewed as a race to get yourself cancelled. But like pineapple on pizza, he is willing to see the lighter side of it.
In January 2021, a sudden discovery of COVID-19 cases aboard an inbound flight prompted Tennis Australia to force all international players into 14-day quarantines. A lot of players publically complained about the situation but it was Novak Djokovic, the world’s best player, who decided to firmly voice their demands by writing to the federation.
The demands were of course rejected, guised as a popular scientific rebuttal of the player’s ‘selfishness’ even though they concerned everyone. This year, the player has been held as a refugee, disallowed entry into the country, and now refused mobility in a high-profile, almost comically publicised, farce. Though the player’s stance on vaccination and other ideas have already received criticism around the world, this latest, and probably the shrillest incident yet, is symbolic of at least one thing. That Djokovic is more a victim of the brand he could not become than the flawed human being he obviously is.
Let us just get a few things out of the way. Tennis grand slams are elite, premium events that simply will not be what they are if the world’s top players do not show up. In this situation, the federations that organise these tournaments needs these players as much as they need the tournaments. The pandemic has suddenly illuminated a side of this relationship that both parties probably would not have wanted to consider before – politics.
Djokovic is a complex star, as unbelievably accomplished, as he is also principally flawed – according to, mind you, a majoritarian perspective. Unfortunately for him, the Serbian has also had to share the stage with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two frighteningly audacious monks who embody the likeability of a meadow growing its own chocolate ice-cream. They say the right things, appear inconceivably humble, and are brands unto themselves.
Comparatively, Djokovic has never been as liked, be it on court or outside it. His near late supremacy on the tennis circuit may have even irked traditionalists who would have preferred the Federer-Nadal rivalry to monopolised the whole of tennis, for the sake of romanticism. So much so Djokovic has even been asked by bone-headed journalists about how he feels about ‘being the bad guy’ in this era of good men’s tennis. This, by the way, is a man who has done achingly humane social work in his home country, and handsomely donated to its COVID relief efforts as well. He just does not want to be injected with something he does not trust. It also begs the question that if the nature of what is ‘fundamental’ can be overwritten – even in times of duress – then is any right (his right over his body) actually exacting in the sense that it is intended?
Then there is question of popularity. Both Federer and Nadal are wildly likeable figures, brands that echo sage-like qualities that simply cannot be faulted. They grow even by being quiet. Which is why they will be hunted for comments to declare what a buffoon their adversary has been in this case. Tied on the same number of grand slam titles, rather tellingly, Djokovic’s genius simply does not receive the respect and love it deserves. Unlike his peers, he has a vocal and an imprecise outer self that does not simply parse convention for the sake of exhibiting a humbler side.
As president of the Tennis players’ association, the player has openly spoken against federations that can be oppressive and ignorant. As far as this current incident goes, Australia – the country and the tennis association – could have handled the situation better by quietly ushering it to an outpost of grace rather than the ignominious global story it has become.
Tennis Australia and Djokovic have not been each other’s best friends of late, but this public persecution of Tennis’ biggest star is more bureaucratic hubris than the enlightened response it wants to dress up as.
The player could have been informed of the eventualities ahead of time, things could have been handled behind closed doors or the tournament could have reincarnated itself to host its most illustrious star. Instead, Djokovic has become the butt of a million woke jokes, that threaten to downsize whatever greatness the man has managed to earn, against the odds of a cultural majority mind you.
Djokovic’s refusal to get vaccinated is a debate of what qualifies as personal and public freedoms, and how to separate the two in a time of jest and uncertainty. It kind of also pokes a hole into the concept of outright liberty, because clearly, the majority decides the extent to which liberality can be practiced. Frankly, players and personalities have done far worse to endanger people in the past for a lot less, and gotten away because they have the court of public opinion in their favour. Djokovic, on the other hand, right or wrong, has often decided to push back against the wave – and not just on court – that he does not wish to ride. From being villainised for refusing to settle within the folds of the Federer-Nadal love story, the player is now being publically prosecuted because it is just easier to do so with someone ‘like’ him.
Manik Sharma writes on art and culture, cinema, books, and everything in between.