The Djokovic circus triggers a toxic chain reaction of distrust and resentment | Novak Djokovic
NOTovak Djokovic fought the Australian government the way he fights his rivals on the tennis court: with defiance and stubborn refusal, with every tool at his disposal and to the tiniest fiber of his being, with faith steadfast and messianic in his own supremacy. He contested his expulsion as if it were a crucial breaking point, as if it were his last fight against total oblivion. This time, however, something surprising happened. He lost.
Djokovic is not used to losing. When he does, he tends to explain it away as the product of his own failures. He courteously praises his opponents, but ultimately leaves you with the impression that he decides who wins and who loses. His collection of trophies and records – 20 Grand Slam titles, the most weeks at world number 1 in men’s tennis history – suggest he’s probably right. But it also implies an assertion of individual control and inviolability: it is my business, and I will take care of it myself.
The problems arise when you start to confuse the hard, white lines of the tennis court with the messy compromises of the world at large. Djokovic wouldn’t be the first professional athlete to work under the illusion that his superior athletic ability confers some sort of elite virtue, a firewall against judgment and scrutiny. Nor would he be the first to confuse his athletic gifts with expertise in other areas: lifestyle, health and medicine, even politics. “I can show you how to change not just your body, but your whole life experience,” he promises in his 2013 book Serve to Win: part autobiography, part nutrition guide, and a harbinger of Instagram influencer culture. which packs diet, mental health, bodily narcissism, and alternative medicine into one shiny, salable package.
No athlete is required to stay in their lane. But anyone who leverages their fame, power, and privilege in this way has a responsibility to do so carefully, to consider the consequences of their choices, to recognize when they have become counterproductive. And perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the past fortnight, as the Djokovic Circus rolled out of Melbourne airport and onto our smartphones and TV screens, is how Djokovic’s choices have sparked forces and currents far greater than himself, or tennis: a toxic chain reaction of distrust and resentment that could lead us to extremely dark places.
You can see it in the teeming crowd that gathered outside Djokovic’s hotel to protest Australia’s vaccine laws. You can see it in Serbian politicians trying to redefine this visa dispute as a parable of freedom versus tyranny. “A symbol of the free world, a beacon of free men,” said former prime minister Nebojsa Covic. You can also see it in the bowels of the internet, where a conspiratorial movement has anointed Djokovic as its “uninfected sperm hero”. Which, if nothing else, is one way to settle the GOAT debate.
Without a doubt, Djokovic would repudiate many of the causes now trying to trade in his name. And of course, this stuff has always been there in various forms. But thanks to Djokovic and his belligerence, he now has a bigger platform, attention and momentum, lenses and microphones. There’s a time to fan the flames and a time to get things under control, and when Nigel Farage travels to Serbia to meet your parents and pose for photos in your trophy room, those days are probably over.
There’s a natural temptation to see Djokovic himself as an innocent unfortunate in all of this, a gullible idiot with his healing water and wacky science playing with toys he knows nothing about. And yes, there is opportunism on both sides here. The treatment of Djokovic by the Australian government and its Prime Minister’s ribbed cane toad has been a nauseating sight. The Australian Open as a tournament has been weakened and eclipsed.
But let’s not pretend that we are dealing here with two opposing arguments of equal value. Djokovic isn’t just some new-age naïve who ticked the wrong box on a form. Recall that last month, he tested positive for Covid and then came straight out of the house to do a photo shoot. He is a man who has done more than any top player to attack the principle of equal pay in tennis, with his insistence that “women must fight for what they think we deserve and we have to fight for what we think we deserve”.
Djokovic himself has explained how his political outlook intersects with his beliefs on health and medicine. “Growing up under communism, you are not taught to be open-minded,” he wrote in Serve to Win. “People at the top are invested in making sure we don’t question what we’re told to believe. Whether it’s a communist leader or the leaders of the food and pharmaceutical industries, the people at the top understand that most of us are driven by fear.
At the heart of Djokovic’s worldview, then, is an unshakable belief in the power of self-actualization, of an individual’s freedom to alter their own world, regardless of the consequences of others. It’s the same libertarian streak that runs through the anti-vax movement, the American right and an important part of England’s national identity, which is why it’s no surprise that we elect leaders who believe the rules are for little people.
Perhaps that’s why Djokovic’s case has aroused such strong feelings. It is in many ways a microcosm of the debates tearing societies apart the world over. What are our responsibilities to each other? How open should our borders be? Where does the right to personal freedom end and where does the duty towards others begin? Who can even make these decisions? As Djokovic’s plane took off on Sunday evening, it was tempting to see an end to it. In fact, the larger struggle has only just begun.