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Novak Djokovic is driven by an obsession, but that always has a cost

Novak Djokovic, on his way to the 2021 French Open title. (Thibault Camus/AP)
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Novak Djokovic injured his legacy and his chance at being a popular champion not because of his vaccination status and unconventional beliefs but because he imagined his sacrifices were the only ones that mattered. In the hunt for stand-alone greatness, he lost touch with others.

Djokovic’s vaccination stance is not about health; it’s about performance, an entirely different thing. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding that Djokovic is in pursuit of good health on the tennis court and therefore should be cognizant of our public health. He declined to get vaccinated against the coronavirus because he reserves the right “to choose what’s best for my body,” but he doesn’t mean that in the usual sense. He self-punishes to the nth degree, practices daily to extremes, is lean to the point of attenuation, and when he does yogic stretches for his hamstrings, he is looking not for normal flexibility but for beyond-maximal ranges of motion. He’s seeking an edge that will make him utterly differentiated.

And that is why his siege-like attempt to gain entry to the Australian Open has been so hard for the rest of us to understand.

Novak Djokovic is out of the Australian Open. But what about the other Grand Slams?

If Djokovic wanted to play in the tournament, and pursue a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title, why didn’t he just get the jab? Why did he refuse to follow the Australian government edict that visitors receive coronavirus vaccination and instead seek an iffy “medical exemption,” only to be caught violating common sense after he tested positive for the virus?

Because Djokovic chases a 1 percent margin of human performance, on an acute physical plane, one in which he’s sensitive to even a moment of dullness or physical setback, and he trusts no one but himself to protect that sensory margin. Not even a doctor. And perhaps living at that 1 percent made him feel invulnerable, and unassailable.

The gap between Djokovic and even the 10th-ranked player in the world is profound. It’s not just physical but a mind-set, a mental threshold, and he means to keep it that way. As Washington Post tennis writer Liz Clarke observes, “These 1-percenters are not normal people, these are not even normal athletes.” What Djokovic does is unrecognizable to most of us — and it’s downright anti-social.

He works from a place of punishing intensity — and personal absorption — that few people can converse with him about. When she was the top player in the world, Martina Navratilova once said that a glass of whole milk could make her feel almost drunk. The quest for that exquisite feeling can take athletes to some strange places and practices. Djokovic once talked on his Instagram feed about changing the composition of polluted water with the power of a prayerful mind. As tennis commentator Mary Carillo said, “The people of Flint, Michigan would love to hear that news.”

Tennis star Novak Djokovic departed Australia on Jan. 16 after losing his legal challenge to remain in the country unvaccinated to play in the Australian Open. (Video: Reuters)

So to talk to Djokovic, who seeks skills in defiance of physical laws through brutal training and solitary suffering, about the danger of going unvaccinated is naive. Our conversations with athletes about dangerous practices fail because of what renowned bioethicist Thomas Murray has called “the you’ll-put-your-eye-out argument.” You can’t tell a quarterback who gets hit by 300-pound linemen or a cyclist who rides up an Alp not to take a steroid because “you might hurt yourself.” The argument has no force for them.

Australian Open moves on without Novak Djokovic

There is an inevitable price to pay for outer-edge mental and physical explorations. Andre Agassi had wrist tendinitis, sciatica and a brief flirtation with crystal meth; Jimmy Connors had terrible back pain, bone spurs and a gambling addiction. But maybe the biggest toll is the slow creep of narcissism. Some 1-percenters manage to maintain their connection to the audience. Rafael Nadal, for instance. For others, performance trumps everything, and it can carry them to a very remote — and lonely — place. Chris Evert once remarked, “I didn’t like the characteristics that it took to become a champion.” She also said: “Winning was a need.”

Winning can be an addiction, and it comes with the costs of all addictions, including poor judgment. The pity of the Australian Open mess is that Djokovic is a great champion and an interesting, searching man who yearns to connect with and be loved by crowds. But many in those crowds simply will not understand how he could have been so tone-deaf to the sacrifices and outrage of Australians, who for two years have followed some of the most austere coronavirus restrictions in the world. That tone-deafness continued Sunday, when he issued a statement after he was finally deported: “I will now be taking some time to rest and to recuperate before making any further comments beyond this.” Rest and recuperate? Who gets any of that in these terrible days?

Surviving a pandemic requires collective commitment, some acknowledgment of responsibility to be safe for others, not just ourselves, regardless of vaccine status. The great Irish political commentator and author Fintan O’Toole has written a caution to the privileged who would flout covid-19 protocols: “Never let the people who think they are making a sacrifice [realize] that in fact they are the sacrifice.”

Djokovic chased aloneness at the top, to the point that he was willing to sacrifice his own well-being for it and to the point, regrettably, that he forgot to care about yours.