Star athletes in today’s world are demigods. They are paid obscene amounts of money for playing children’s games. They are breathlessly interviewed on TV. Their personal lives are chronicled on social media. Their presence is desired at every party and charitable event. They are constantly sought after as friends, investors and romantic partners.
It can be very easy under those circumstances to lose your head — to imagine that, because you are so good at playing your sport, you must also be an expert in matters far removed from it. Hence the phenomenon of star athletes — such as the NFL’s Aaron Rodgers and the NBA’s Kyrie Irving — who refuse to get vaccinated, suggesting that they think they know more than the entire medical establishment about how best to fight covid-19.
Add Serbian tennis superstar Novak Djokovic to the list.
Over the past two decades, he has made a strong case that he is the tennis GOAT — the Greatest of All Time. He has won 20 Grand Slam titles, creating a three-way tie for the record with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the other two contenders for the “Greatest” title. But Djokovic has a winning head-to-head record against both Federer and Nadal, and he is younger than they are, so the odds are that he will soon surpass their feats.
I was in the stands at the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in 2019 when Djokovic saved two match points against Federer and went on to win another Wimbledon title in a five-set thriller. No one in the history of tennis has been better than Djokovic in clutch points. He must have veins full of ice water.
But despite Djokovic’s record of on-court success, he will never be the fan favorite that Federer and Nadal have become. They radiate class and grace, Djokovic the opposite. He has a long history of racket-smashing meltdowns and unnecessary medical timeouts. He was even disqualified from the 2020 U.S. Open for hitting a line judge with a ball.
Djokovic is also in thrall to New Age theories about how positive thinking can “detoxify” food and water, claiming that “molecules in the water react to our emotions, to what is being said.” He stopped eating gluten after holding a piece of bread to his stomach, with supposedly allergic results.
Naturally, he has expressed opposition to vaccination. In 2020, as the coronavirus engulfed the world, Djokovic staged a tennis tournament in the Balkans, where he and other participants were photographed partying without masks. Not surprisingly, Djokovic and his wife both caught covid-19. He apologized on Twitter for the “harm” he caused, but he seems to have learned nothing from the experience.
Rather than getting vaccinated, Djokovic appears to be relying on his No. 1 world ranking to play tournaments without getting jabbed. This is a big problem considering that the Australian Open, where he is the defending champion, takes place in a country that requires proof of vaccination from visitors.
Djokovic traveled to Australia, claiming to have an exemption from the state of Victoria. But federal authorities revoked his visa and now he is fighting deportation. The more facts we learn, the worse he looks. His lawyers claim in a court filing that Djokovic is entitled to an exemption because he contracted covid-19 on Dec. 16, but, as tennis journalist Ben Rothenberg points out, he was required by Tennis Australia to apply for an exemption no later than Dec. 10.
Wait. It gets worse. On Dec. 17, the day after his purported positive test, Djokovic attended an awards ceremony with children at the Novak Tennis Center and posted multiple pictures online showing him maskless, surrounded by kids. On Dec. 18, pictures were posted of Djokovic playing indoor basketball with friends — also maskless.
It is possible that Djokovic was tested on Dec. 16 and didn’t get the results for a few days. But, Rothenberg asks, “What was Djokovic planning to do if he didn’t get a positive test for Covid? Was that somehow his plan for getting into the #AusOpen? Contracting a disease?”
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Djokovic was looking to game the system at the risk of putting people’s lives in danger. What makes this spectacle even more distasteful is the way that Djokovic’s supporters insist on casting him as the victim. His father, Srdjan Djokovic, claims that his overprivileged, overpaid son, who is staying at a Melbourne hotel used to house refugees and asylum seekers, is the “Spartacus of the new world” — a “symbol” of “poor and oppressed countries and peoples.”
How absurd. If Djokovic is Spartacus, then I’m Rod Laver. In truth, Djokovic is another whiny sports superstar with screwy ideas and an exaggerated sense of entitlement.
I hope that Australia deports him — and that he will not be allowed to enter the United States to play the U.S. Open unless he presents proof of vaccination. Just because sports stars are showered with rewards unknown to ordinary mortals doesn’t mean that they should be allowed to evade the (sensible) covid rules imposed on everyone else.