In praise of Novak Djokovic

12 January 2022

9:11 PM

12 January 2022

9:11 PM

Like you, I am hugely enjoying the Novak Djokovic drama Down Under. What’s not to like? It is extremely funny. Quite possibly the world’s healthiest man has been deemed a danger to public health in a nation where two thirds of adults are overweight or obese by a government that has, at various points over the last two years, done a more than passable impression of having gone completely nuts.

Even during the worst stages of the pandemic here in the UK, I have often given silent thanks that I do not live in Australia, which as the months have slowly ticked by has increasingly revealed a authoritarian zealousness matched only by China and other tyrannical regimes.

But when the police started trialling smartphone facial recognition and geolocation technologies to monitor adherence to self-isolation rules, and checking the contents of coffee cups in parks in case citizens were using empty ones as props to flout mask mandates, I realised there was more to it. Australia has become, from the outside, at least, a nation apparently determined to shut itself down. Melbourne, where Djokovic still could defend his Australian Open title, has endured 262 days in lockdown.

It comes as no great surprise now to see Australian police officers using the Djokovic hoopla to indulge in a spot of lusty pepper spraying of his supporters, who had gathered outside his lawyers’ offices to protest his treatment. In September, the same force was firing rubber bullets and lobbing stinger grenades at anti-lockdown protestors. So much for the laid back lifestyle.

One of the strangest aspects of the celebrity culture we all now inhabit is how we project onto our heroes the qualities we most admire. Djokovic is my favourite tennis player, for example, because I see in the way he plays and conducts himself something of the charismatic wild man, which I like.

For the same reason, and although I admire the way he plays the game tremendously, I am not particularly a fan of Roger Federer, who seems always to my mind somewhat bourgeois and corporate. If he wasn’t one of the greatest players of the modern era, I’ve always suspected he’d work in investment banking and drive a BMW, and be terribly good at skiing. Djokovic might have become a Eurasian warlord.

It’s this projection of our own values onto people we’ve never met, and in reality know very little about, that makes it so mortifying when they relieve themselves of a political opinion completely at odds with our own. This is why in these increasingly polarised times, sports stars (and anyone else working in the entertainment industry, for that matter) are best advised to keep their trap shut and instead just to keep doing whatever it is they do best.

Venture an opinion on anything, from abortion rights to immigration policies, and lose half your fan base in an instant. Since he came out against Brexit, for example, Gary Lineker’s standing has diminished for many sports enthusiasts.

It’s in this spirit, of course – by which I mean, the politicisation of everything – that the Djokovic story has become such huge news. For people who think the unvaccinated are essentially the walking dead and should be treated as such, what is happening to him is richly deserved. For these people, the men’s number one tennis player is an irritating narcissist whose comeuppance will hopefully serve as an example to anyone who thinks the rules don’t apply to them, and who shows disregard for the burden they might place on the healthcare providers upon whom we all rely.

For the anti-vax brigade, Djokovic, who has never been all that popular, has become the idealised exemplar of their worldview – not only a genius with the racket, but an unvaccinated possessor of a mind capable of seeing through the endless propaganda put out by the global medical-industrial complex. He’s a man brave enough to think for himself and to take a stand, no matter the personal cost. Which is why, presumably, Nigel Farage has been beating a path to Serbia to meet his family.

I’m no anti-vaxxer but I feel sorry for Djokovic. I’ve read the transcript of his interrogation by the Australian customs officials and it seems clear he travelled to the country in good faith, believing he had been given the exemptions he required. However, it’s not because I feel sorry for him that I very much hope he wins the Australian Open when it finally starts next week. I want him to win because, like everyone else, I’m so heartily sick of every aspect of this pandemic.

In my mind, Djokovic now represents not just the human vitality the Covid-19 virus is capable of destroying, but also the individual against states everywhere – not just Australia – that have used the crisis to increase and consolidate their power over the people they are meant to serve. I want him to prevail, however highly the odds are stacked against him.

Yes, when he gets home, he will have some more explaining to do about his movements in the days after he discovered he had Covid-19, on 16 December. In the meantime, Australia, please be careful not to break a butterfly – the greatest tennis player of all time – upon a wheel. Go on, Novak!

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