Not only did Novak Djokovic’s seemingly unending effort to play the Australian Open typify his long, brilliant, tenacious career, on court and off, it mirrored and amplified the worldwide divide on a pandemic that knows no borders and has hobbled humanity.
Yes, at their 1973 Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs created a sometimes bitter, sometimes playful gender divide. John McEnroe’s volatile explosions triggered fans. Serena Williams, at Indian Wells in 2001, at the raucous 2018 US Open final, and at many points in between, has provoked wide-ranging opinions. Now Novak has evolved into one of most polarizing players in tennis history.
NBC suggested Novak is on a self made journey to martyrdom. For months his seemingly unending effort to not reveal his COVID status and not get vaccinated – but still play the Australian Open – was the most elaborate sports soap opera in memory, one that, in its latest twist, featured a hearing that had a sports trial-of-the-century kind of feel. At one point in the case, Judge Anthony Kelly commented, “I don’t see what else this man could have done.” The twittersphere shouted back – “Get vaccinated!”
Novak’s unblinking effort to play the Australian Open made the many other provocative happenings in his career – claiming that toxic water can be transformed by positive thinking, making tone-deaf comments relating to women, being called out for moral cowardice by Stan Wawrinka, staging a COVID spreading tennis event, starting an insurgent players’ association, being ejected from the US Open, twice hurling his racket at the Olympics, – seem like small change. And though, for now, it seems he has clear sailing to try to win his tenth Australian Open, there could be yet another plot twist.
The exhausting drama, that got more coverage on CNN than America’s face-off with Russia over Ukraine, followed quite a script. Star athlete emerges from a small, beleaguered, war-torn nation with the fate of his family on his shoulders. He battles against all odds to become a national hero who is perpetually in the shadow of two dreamy superstars. And although he fails to win the Grand Slam at the 2021 US Open, in defeat he at last gains what he’s always craved – the adoration of the masses. But then he seems to squander much of it on a campaign that, for many, defied science and conventional wisdom.
The steadfast refusal of an international sport star to be vaccinated drew wide-ranging opinions, created deep fissures and left us with many questions.
Pam Shriver said, “Having been to Australia about 45 times, been married to an Aussie and have three kids with dual Aussie USA citizenship, the borders have long been strictly protected. The Aussie slang ‘fair dinkum’ [the far more whimsical Down Under version of our phrase ‘fair play’] came to mind…Novak was not ‘fair dinkum’ by Aussie standards.”
Djokovic’s younger brother Djordje contended his people were fighting for “the liberty of choice.” But then he abruptly ended his news conference when he was asked about Novak appearing maskless at two events just after he supposedly tested positive for COVID on December 16th.
Novak’s mother explained, “We have come to celebrate the victory of our son Novak, a boy who learned in his family not to tolerate lies, injustice and deception and always fought for justice.” She added that Nole’s court win was “the biggest victory in his career – bigger than all his Grand Slams.”
Jimmy Connors tweeted, “OK – we all have a choice – #Covid – #boosters – he had Covid- don’t f–k up the Austrian Open without the ‘best player’ If he test ‘negative’ — should let him play!! He won it 9 f–king times- come on @AustralianOpen he has been loyal to your event. loyal2him #fight4him.”
Australian tennis writer and broadcaster Craig Gabriel responded to Connors, saying, “Jimmy he had it 18 months ago. You need to understand what this country has been through and what Melbourne has been through. Rules are rules and there can’t be 1 for some another for all else. Public are already fuming with the situation. To quote Aussies, it ‘doesn’t pass the pub test.’” The former Aussie ATP player Sam Groth contended the situation “spits in the eyes of all Australians.”
But passionate Serbians, from Belgrade to Melbourne, contended, “You’re spitting in the eye of our man.” Djokovic’s parents, who compared him to Spartacus and Jesus, complained about the dreary, windowless hotel he was retained in for three days. They said he was imprisoned. Others said his retention merely brought to light the treatment that refugees get in Australia. “Djokovic can f–k off,” read one banner in Melbourne, “Free the refugees.”
Tweeter Nikos Arcadis wrote, “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality seems like discrimination.”
A Belgrade demonstrator had a different take: “I love Novak – he is my brother. He gave us light at the end of the tunnel in our hour of darkness.” A British right-wing politician, Nigel Farage, traveled to Serbia to lend support to Djokovic’s family. But Brit Andy Murray was having none of it. He tweeted, “Please record the awkward moment when you tell them you’ve spent most of your career campaigning to have people from Eastern Europe deported.”
Meanwhile, Nick Kyrgios tested positive for COVID and police gathered en masse in downtown Melbourne and used pepper spray against demonstrators amidst rumors that Djokovic could be arrested by federal authorities and have his visa re-cancelled.
In other words, it’s just another day in the Novax saga.