“Why Novak, why!” asked BBC journalist Amol Rajan, insistent and surprised, when Djokovic revealed that he was willing to miss Grand Slam tournaments for not getting vaccinated.
“Because the principles of decision making on my body are more important than any title or anything else,” the Serb replied sharply. “I’m trying to be in tune with my body as much as I possibly can,” he insisted, in sober and precise words.
You can tell from Rajan’s expression and tone that he doesn’t understand Djokovic. In fact, millions don’t. Why stop being the greatest tennis player — statistically — of all time just because you don’t get a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, why not listen to “the experts” and get vaccinated so you can compete?
These are questions that the average viewer asks, leaving aside several imponderables, among them, that every human being should be able to choose whether or not to receive a vaccine without being discriminated against for it. But Novak Djokovic, and thousands of citizens around the world, have been treated badly by the media for deciding not to get vaccinated. They were labeled as selfish, anti-vaccine and a bad example for society just for defending their principles of deciding about their bodies. They were condemned, in short, for a legitimate decision.
Djokovic bears the burden of being a villain and a legend
In the recent episode in Australia, where Djokovic ended up being deported by the special powers of immigration minister Alex Hawke, many had the guts to disinform or just lie in order to make the Serb look bad.
They said Djokovic wanted to use his status as world number one to get around the rules, but it’s not true. From the first moment the Serb had been clear: he was not going to participate in the Australian Open if the authorities prevented him from doing so. However, Australian law stated that a person without vaccination could enter the country with a valid medical exemption. And the Serb had it — a judge even ruled in his favor! Still, he was kicked out of the country.
The last straw was the incoherence of those who called for the Serb’s expulsion. People who are usually against harsh immigration regimes suddenly began to applaud a government using the force of the state to go against a citizen who had everything in place and was healthy.
I remember, in fact, that the whole political circus started when the world complained about Australia not letting in the Russian tennis player Natalia Vikhlyantseva, who was vaccinated with Sputnik, a drug not accepted by the authorities, but Djokovic was. The truth is that they did not want justice for her, the intention was to see Djokovic “pay,” even if that would generate a double injustice: that tennis players with measured exemptions would not enter either.
It is sad, because many sided with a government that has persecuted and mistreated its citizens with despotic health measures, as in Australia a surveillance state was imposed under the excuse of keeping the coronavirus at bay. Not unlike what happens in Canada when severe provincial confinements are enforced.
Why did they prefer to support the authoritarian measures of the Australian government? Because on the other side was Novak Djokovic, a figure who has historically been polarizing and controversial.
It is no secret that many do not like Djokovic. They don’t like his temperament or his ways. Moreover, he was the man who burst in to break the Federer-Nadal dynasty, the two most beloved players on the circuit. The tennis story elevated the Serb to the figure of villain and Djokovic accepted that role; getting used to criticism, finger-pointing and often having the public against him.
Unfortunately, a narrative was then forged around Djokovic that portrayed him as an idiot, a bad guy. There were times when what he said was misrepresented and he received unnecessary and misplaced attacks. For example, when he talked about the case of Simone Biles and her withdrawal from the Olympics due to mental health. He never questioned Biles. In fact, he supported her decision and said that he was otherwise draining that frustration and pressure that comes with being at the elite level.
The facts apparently don’t matter. The masses don’t care if Djokovic carried a valid medical exemption to Australia, or if he has a health issue that prevents him from taking the shot, or if his decision has more to do with religious beliefs. Already most have taken sides and will either attack or support the Serb depending on which version of the narrative they believe. Many will discriminate against him for his decision and others will support him and even take him as a reference. There are also those who, correctly, do not share, but respect the tennis player.
While we “normal” citizens don’t have to explain our decisions, the stars do. That is the burden that comes with being an elite sports figure. Having on your back a vigilant society, often hypocritical, ready to attack you mercilessly if you do something that is not right in the eyes of the majority. For this reason, the Serb gives me nothing but respect and admiration, because very few athletes are willing to sacrifice their career and public image to defend an individual decision or position.
As far as sports are concerned, anyone who statistically surpasses Nole will be under the asterisk of not having competed against him, who is, today, the best in the world and in history. Because tennis, and any other sport, should not be weighted solely on cold data without context.