He’s the most perplexing athlete of our era. He sprints fast, he twists low, and, like a Zen swordsman, he blasts explosive winners with a mastery that astounds.
Novak Djokovic brushes aside championship points on Wimbledon’s green like a Jedi. Off-court he’s a free-form thinker and restless seeker who explores with zeal. “Want to learn Mandarin?” Sounds good. “How about diving deep into meditative oneness with an ethereal Spanish guru?” Let’s go. Climb a Brazilian fig tree or a French mountain to find vision? That’s Nole. “Sssh – that’s the Djoker over there on the edge of the Grand Canyon in a lotus position.”
Last week, the best player of the last decade, the Serbian man with short hair and big ambitions who has long battled in the imposing shadows of tennis gods Roger and Rafa, gathered his friends and fellow pros for a jolly little tournament, first in Serbia and then in Croatia, that was intended to lift spirits and unite. In fact, it was a celebration of unfiltered arrogance, a caution-be-damned, science doesn’t matter, tone-deaf happening.
In a soccer game before the tourney, Grigor Dimitrov leapt with glee into Novak’s arms. High fives, hugs, packed crowds and boisterous cheers were the order of the day. Afterwards the carefree clan gathered for a wild, let-it-all-hang-out disco party. Shirts were off, minds were closed, all was gleeful. Willful ignorance reigned. Tennis has suffered many horrendous moments of “You can’t be serious!” ignominy. Ilie Nastase once called Arthur Ashe a “negroni.” In 1993 Monica Seles was stabbed in the back.
In Serbia, as Djokovic, Dimitrov, Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem and their pals danced, their message was clear: “This is our party and we can defy a plague if we want to.” Arrogance and toxic masculinity spit at reality. Novak conceded that the pandemic was bad, but commented, “You can criticize us and say this is maybe dangerous. But it’s not up to me to make the calls about what is right or wrong for health. We’re doing what the Serbian government is telling us. Hopefully, we soon will get back on tour…Life goes on. We as athletes are looking forward to competing.”
Dimitrov and then a trainer, a coach, Croat Borna Coric and Serb Viktor Troicki all tested positive. But Djokovic refused to be tested in Croatia. He returned to Serbia and, along with his wife, tested positive. His children tested negative.
The No. 1 player in tennis has put his sport, his family and friends in jeopardy.
The outrage was swift. Nick Kyrgios called the tourney “A boneheaded decision…This IS NOT A JOKE.” ATP Player Council member Bruno Soares was blunt: “I sum it up as a horror show. Enormous irresponsibility and huge immaturity. They were totally careless. It’s difficult for me to find the words.” Mary Carillo asserted: “Novak does not believe in the sanctity of science. He is one of so many people in this world …that think science is just another opinion – and that scares the heck out of me.”
Novak Djokovic is a gifted master who has been called the greatest craftsman to ever play the game. Serbia’s great hero emerged as a boy prospect as bombs were falling. He was trained by a woman who taught him to value poetry and classical music. He’s a generous man who helps many. He likes hyperbaric chambers and cares for his body like few others. His press conferences can be philosophic adventures. He will talk of the glories of distant islands or the value of cutting-edge education. He’s an adept mime, and the funniest man in the game. The best player of the last decade is 18-0 this year and could well become the best player of all time.
But his stunning COVID-19 shortfall was just the latest fail in a 15-month stretch of shocking unforced errors by an often wise, brilliant and gluten-free man, who lately has often seemed to be judgement-free. As the head of the ATP Player Council he propped up his friend and powerful ally Justin Gimelstob. Yes, the American was a fierce negotiator for the players and had become tennis’ most powerful politician. It was said he would soon be heading the ATP.
But on Halloween of 2018 Gimelstob’s anger and suspect judgement again flared. There was a violent incident in L.A. While Gimelstob was a key ATP asset, something had to be done. However despite the questions of this publication, the reporting of the London Telegraph and a powerful statement of conscience by Stan Wawrinka, Djokovic stonewalled, supporting Gimelstob and fleeing from transparency and accountability. Essentially he said, “Okay, I’m the president of the ATP Council, but Justin helps players get money, it’s not really my responsibility to address his situation, the ATP’s discussions are confidential, goodbye.” Eventually, the growing outrage could no longer be defied. Gimelstob resigned.
Djokovic would go on to brilliantly win Wimbledon. He told broadcaster Graham Bensinger, “I can win the most Slams and break the record for longest No. 1. Those are definitely my clear goals. I don’t believe in limits. Limits are only illusions of your ego or your mind.”
Not surprisingly, he bristled at the idea of any limits on his freedom and said he would refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccine, even if there were one. Critics howled. Then he spoke of the detoxification capabilities of our bodies and asserted, “Water can be changed by simply meditating or thinking…[through] energetical transformation, the power of prayer, the power of gratitude. [Some people] manage to turn the…most polluted water into the most healing water…Scientists have proven that…molecules in the water react to our emotions [and] to what has been said.”
It didn’t help matters when Djokovic’s mother Dijana said that Federer was annoying and arrogant. Novak’s father noted that Rafa and Novak were breathing down Federer’s neck. He had the audacity to say that Roger “simply cannot accept the fact that they will be better than him. Come on, man, raise children, do something else, go ski, do something.” Nole’s mom claimed Nole “was saved by God. Novak also believes in God. He feels chosen.”
As the USTA revealed its guidelines for play at the US Open, Novak was incensed. While eager to play in the Balkans, he said, “The rules the US Open…are extreme. We would not have access to Manhattan, we would have to sleep in hotels at the airport, be tested twice or three times per week. Also, we could bring [only] one person to the club, which is really impossible.”
The WTA’s No. 51 player Danielle Collins bristled: “It’s easy when someone’s made $150 million to tell people what to do with their money, and then turn down playing the Open. For those of us (most tennis players) who don’t travel with an entourage, we actually need to start working. It would be nice to have the best player in the world supporting this opportunity and not spoiling it for the players and fans!” Novak later changed his mind and said he would play the Open.
Jon Wertheim noted Nole’s hubris and suggested, “There is a glaring irony to Djokovic. When he plays, he’s so balanced, so steady and impeccably positioned. When he doesn’t play, he sure spends a lot of time in awkward and difficult spots.”
The mere fact of being No. 1, a president or a CEO means you’re a leader. But with Novak, as soon as we relish his brilliant breakthroughs we’re dumbstruck by his mind-boggling lapses. And his dad shamelessly blamed Dimitrov for the COVID-19 breakout at the event Novak spearhead. Djokovic did offer an apology. Still, we are left to ask, will the brazen, deliberate ignorance of the ATP No. 1 not only endanger the health of many, but jeopardize the near future of a sport that was just opening up?