Novak Djokovic: The Making of a Debacle

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

Perhaps one could trace the most perplexing sports soap opera since the OJ Simpson trial to the day young Novak Djokovic came down from his small Serbian mountain village to train in Belgrade. While many stars learn the game in leafy havens, Novak trained as NATO bombs fell. One wonders how that childhood trauma has impacted his life.

Then as a teen, he went off to a German tennis factory. While others partied, Nole perfected what would become some of the best groundies the world has ever seen. Soon he fought his way to the very top. His skills astounded. “Water covers 70% of the planet,” Rob Koenig noted. “Djokovic covers the rest.” Chris McKendry claimed, “It’s the scariest thing you can hear in tennis: ‘You’re playing Djokovic on Ashe Stadium.’”

But over the years, Nole’s path has hardly been smooth. In 2008 his mom said Federer was finished. His hilarious, spot-on impressions were squashed by indignant, thin-skinned super stars. His own fragility was mocked. In front of a packed US Open Stadium Andy Roddick ridiculed his supposed ailments.

But he was admired, too. A natural ham, his humor and love of the spotlight often made him the fun-loving life of the party. 

Far more seriously, he evolved into tennis’s seeker-in-residence, sitting with meditating gurus, on the top of a French mountain or on the edge of the Grand Canyon. He overcame his struggles with allergies, wrote a book on nutrition, revitalized himself in bariatric oxygen tanks, explored alternative schools in Bali and claimed toxic water could be transformed by positive vibes. His foundation helped kids.

Over the years we grew to admire him greatly. His on-court splits were wide, his press room analyses were deep. His “What about the little guy?” move to create an insurgent player association seemed just. 

Perpetually walking the road less traveled, the battler from a small, beleaguered nation was clearly not your typical off-the-shelf superstar. 

For starters the man with the pretty short hair had a pretty short fuse. Despite his record-tying 20 Slams and an array of dazzling records, outside of Serbia and his considerable fan base, he hasn’t been embraced with glee like Roger and Rafa. He was a craftsman like no other. Federer was a graceful wizard, Nadal was a gentleman warrior. Roger’s play was balletic, Nadal was magnetic. Effort was Novak’s great strength. His shots amazed, but they hardly glowed with artistry.

Jaw-dropping adoration flowed to others. Nole reminded us of Martina Navratilova. For all her effort, she would never bathe in the love Chrissie Evert gained with apparent ease.

Nole longed to capture our hearts, but did he try too hard? His post-victory from-the-heart gesture was meant to thank fans, but at times it felt forced and just didn’t resonate.

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Djokovic’s long COVID misadventure didn’t come out of nowhere. In the tradition of Jimmy Connors and Lleyton Hewitt, Novak has long been driven by a me-against-the world mindset. Writer Howard Bryant suggested that Novak represented “the spurned classes” and was “a symbol of Western aggressions against his people…For Serbs and millions of others worldwide who have felt the First World looking down its privileged noses at their people, the great Djokovic is their avenger.”

But sadly, sometimes Novak’s moral compass has been shaky. It’s not only that he’s promoted sketchy New Age theories and has a propensity to heave his rackets and blast balls around the court. When his friend and political ally Justin Gimelstob became involved in a violent fight, Djokovic did little to address the situation. Nole’s inaction became so untenable to Stan Wawrinka that he wrote a letter of conscience that spoke of a “worrying decline in moral standards.”

Part of the problem is that Novak, who now has been detained for a second time and has dominated the tennis narrative for months, doesn’t understand the importance of transparency. During the Gimelstob incident and the ouster of ATP CEO Chris Kermode, Nole shielded himself behind a curtain of secrecy. More recently he didn’t reveal his COVID and vaccine status, or his travels and intentions. Even Rod Laver said it would be best if Djokovic opened up.

Novak often hasn’t grasped the critical importance of accountability. When he hosted a COVID-spreading tennis event in 2020, he deflected criticism by claiming he was following governmental guidelines. When he flattened a lineswoman with a ball, he said he was just human. When he was caught lying on documents (like Maria Sharapova before him), he blamed a team member. He brushed aside mingling with kids and doing an interview with a reporter after taking a COVID test. In 2021 he told us, “I can’t expect myself to [always] be on my best behavior.”

Nole uses euphemisms to diminish his responsibility. A prominent British writer noted, “Djokovic’s WEASEL words cut on ice and he has damaged his reputation with his ‘misinformation.”…[In a recent statement by Novak] the weasley term ‘error of judgment’ was employed…and three times there was reference to correcting ‘misinformation.'”

Novak has long been empowered by enablers. Tennis Australia wanted the nine-time champion to play and crafted an exception pathway. Novak’s coach Goran Ivanisevic asserted, “There is somebody upstairs who sees all this unfairness with a lot of media and people…[There’s] nobody else to attack, so let’s attack Novak.”

Novak’s parents, who compared him to Spartacus and called him the leader of the free world, said he was thrown into a dungeon. They claimed, “Jesus was crucified and he endured…They are trying to crucify Novak in the same way…to throw him to his knees.”

Others saw him more like the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, a star who became the essence of the entitled, self-absorbed athlete. Nikos Arcadis tweeted, “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like discrimination.” The London Telegraph’s Simon Briggs wrote, “The lessons of recent history suggest that the wealthy and powerful are increasingly able to bend reality to their will. But perhaps the pandemic offers a shift in this trend.”

Still, Novak is viewed as a victim by many. Some wonder if he has a tendency to be self-destructive. After his 2021 US Open loss, the New York crowd at last showered him with affection. But now his reputation is in tatters. One day he seems like a fine, generous leader. But then the next day, standing unmasked with children amidst all the COVID worries, ­not so much. Martina Navratilova contended, “When you want to become a sports leader…there comes a responsibility. You are a role model whether you like it or not.” 

Another factor is that his ability to learn lessons is suspect. He blasted a ball in 2020 that got him kicked out of the US Open. Still, just eleven months later at the Olympics he twice hurled his racket in fury. In 2020 the fundraising Adria Tour he hosted turned into a COVID disaster. Now he’s again embroiled in controversy. He has become one of the most divisive figures in sports history.

Germany’s Der Spiegel contended, “With his attempt to play in the Australian Open as a committed anti-vaxxer, and with his subsequent battle with immigration authorities, Djokovic has become a hero to…conspiracy theorists around the world – and a pariah for all those who side with science and see vaccination as the only way out of this accursed pandemic.”

Novak has many backers: Venus Williams, Tom Brady, Nick Kyrgios, John Isner, Greg Rusedski, British politician Nigel Farage. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic asked, “Why do you mistreat him? Why do you harass him…and a nation that is free and proud?”

Diane Drayton tweeted, “We stand United with you Novak! We applaud and give thanks for your guts courage and opposition to the heinous tyranny by the Australian government and other governments around the world who are committing these appalling crimes against innocent populations aka crimes against humanity!”

With an Australian election just three months away, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd hammered the government’s move: “What a surprise! Morrison’s government cancels Djokovic’s visa to win the weekend media cycle – showing us all how hairy-chested he is…One big political distraction from empty shelves & the national shortage of boosters.”

Novak’s critics ranged from the foul-mouthed shock jock Howard Stern to the more balanced Jen Maran, who tweeted, “A person of good standing wouldn’t endanger the lives of people. Nor would they disrupt the tournament this way. They would have some consideration for the other players. A person in good standing would go home gracefully.” Stefanos Tsitsipas conceded that Djokovic’s moves have been daring, but, “He’s been playing by his own rules.”

Amidst the Nole circus, a hot mic moment was bound to emerge. The unwitting Aussie broadcaster Rebecca Maddern said, “Whatever way you look at it, Novak Djokovic is a lying, sneaky a–hole.” Her partner Mike Amor added, “He had a bulls–t excuse and then fell over his own f–king lies…but I think he’s going to get away with it…Did they do the right thing by him? I don’t know, they f–ked it up. That’s the problem, isn’t it?”    

As the Djokovic fatigue deepened, it was noted that so many have had to sacrifice so much. Nadal poignantly noted, “There’s no one player in history that’s more important than an event, no? The players stays and then goes…No one, even Roger, Novak, myself, Bjorn Borg…Tennis keeps going. [The] Australian Open is much more important than any player.”

Martina Navratilova expressed a sentiment held by many: “Sometimes you have to suck it up for the team and for the greater good…Sometimes you just have to do the right thing.”

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