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In April 2020, with the professional tennis tour suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, Novak Djokovic took half in a Fb Stay chat with some fellow Serbian athletes. Throughout their dialog, Djokovic, well-known for his punishing coaching routine, abstemious weight loss plan and fondness for New Age beliefs, said he was “against vaccination” and “wouldn’t need to be compelled by somebody to take a vaccine so as to have the ability to journey.”

“But when it turns into obligatory, what’s going to occur? I should decide,” he mentioned.

Greater than a 12 months and a half later, Djokovic’s determination to hunt a medical exemption to the Australian Open’s vaccine requirement has turn out to be a debacle for tennis — and one of the crucial weird episodes but served up by the pandemic. Djokovic, 34, has performed doubtlessly irreparable hurt to his personal picture. It’s a bitter twist for a participant who has lengthy craved the adoration lavished on his chief rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and it’s a unhappy coda to what’s broadly thought-about the best period within the historical past of males’s tennis.

Djokovic arrived in Australia aiming to notch a document twenty first Grand Slam singles title, which might put him one forward of Federer and Nadal and strengthen his declare to being essentially the most completed males’s participant of all time. As an alternative, he now finds himself on the middle of a worldwide controversy that activates a number of the most divisive points raised by the pandemic, particularly the query of particular person freedom versus collective duty.

Djokovic’s refusal to capitulate to an Australian authorities that has sought to bar him “within the public curiosity” as a result of he’s unvaccinated has made him a martyr within the eyes of some right-wing populists and those that oppose vaccines, and has elicited an outpouring of rage in Serbia.

Whereas Djokovic was sequestered in a Melbourne lodge room awaiting a court docket listening to on his getting into the nation, Nigel Farage, the far-right British politician and media determine who spearheaded the Brexit marketing campaign, was in Belgrade, Serbia, expressing solidarity with the tennis star’s household. Djokovic’s father in contrast his son to Jesus Christ and Spartacus and hailed him as “the chief of the free world.” In Melbourne, a raucous crowd of Djokovic supporters chanted “Novak” and clashed with the police.

All of this can be a unusual flip of occasions for an athlete who has usually been accused of making an attempt too exhausting to win the world’s affection and who instructions monumental respect inside his sport, and never simply because he has performed a lot profitable. He’s a preferred determine within the locker room, the place he’s seen as a powerful advocate for gamers who’re struggling financially: In 2020, he co-founded a players’ association with the acknowledged objective of constructing tennis extra remunerative for these down the ranks, although it’s unclear what that group has accomplished since. Djokovic additionally has distinguished himself together with his philanthropy and with the graciousness he has proven Federer and Nadal. (“He’s an impressive champion,” Djokovic mentioned of Federer after beating him at Wimbledon in 2014.)

In particular person, he’s affable and fascinating, with a eager curiosity in life past the baseline and a palpable sense of gratitude for his luck. Djokovic grew up throughout the Balkan wars of the Nineties — he was in Belgrade when NATO forces bombed Serbia and spent many nights huddled within the basement of his grandfather’s condo constructing.

Djokovic has mentioned that the expertise helped harden him into the champion he grew to become. Nevertheless it maybe additionally bred a way of imperviousness that has now led him astray.

This standoff in Australia has additionally put a highlight on a number of the extra troubling points of Djokovic’s public persona. He has lengthy been a non secular dabbler, with a weak point for what some regard as quackery. A couple of years in the past, when Djokovic was mired in a stoop, there was concern he had fallen below the sway of a Spanish tennis coach named Pepe Imaz, whose coaching philosophy, referred to as Amor y Paz, or Love and Peace, emphasised meditation and group hugs. (“Human beings have infinite capacities and abilities, the issue is that our thoughts limits us,” Imaz mentioned on his web site. “Telepathy, telekinesis, and lots of extra issues are all doable.”) In a video on YouTube, Djokovic is proven onstage with Imaz speaking concerning the “need to be able to look inwards and to determine this reference to a divine mild.”

When the tennis tour was on hiatus throughout the spring of 2020, Djokovic did a number of Instagram chats with the wellness guru Chervin Jafarieh. Throughout certainly one of their conversations, Djokovic claimed that the thoughts might purify water.

“I do know some those who, by means of energetical transformation, by means of the ability of prayer, by means of the ability of gratitude, they managed to show essentially the most poisonous meals, or possibly essentially the most polluted water, into essentially the most therapeutic water, as a result of the water reacts,” he mentioned. “Scientists have confirmed that in experiment, that molecules within the water react to our feelings to what has been mentioned.” (“The individuals of Flint, Michigan, would love to listen to that information,” the tennis commentator Mary Carillo replied.)

It was throughout this identical interval that Djokovic revealed on Fb Stay his opposition to vaccines and vaccine mandates. A couple of months later, he hosted an exhibition tour within the Balkans that became a superspreader event. Djokovic and his spouse had been amongst those that examined constructive for the coronavirus. Within the press and in tennis circles, Djokovic was pilloried for staging matches — with followers in attendance — throughout a public well being disaster. Nevertheless it was nothing in comparison with the opprobrium he has confronted this month, notably in Australia, the place the general public is chafing below Covid restrictions, and the Djokovic struggle is taking part in out towards the backdrop of an upcoming nationwide election.

Again in Serbia, nonetheless, Djokovic is seen as a sufferer who’s being victimized as a result of he’s Serbian. “They’re stomping throughout Novak to stomp throughout Serbia and Serbian individuals,” Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, instructed reporters. The Serbian overseas ministry put out a press release saying that the Serbian public “has a powerful impression” that Djokovic was “lured to journey to Australia in an effort to be humiliated” and that it was feeling “comprehensible indignation.”

The Djokovic flap has come at a time of resurgent Serbian nationalism in Bosnia, and it has additionally revived curiosity in Djokovic’s political opinions. On a go to to Bosnia final September, he was photographed with the previous commander of a paramilitary group that was implicated within the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. He was additionally videotaped singing at a marriage with Milorad Dodik, the hard-line Serbian nationalist whose separatist rhetoric is raising fears that Bosnia might again fall into conflict.

Djokovic has made feedback through the years that advised he was at the least sympathetic to Serbian nationalism. In a speech in 2008, he mentioned that Kosovo belonged to Serbia after it declared independence. Then again, he’s coached by a Croat, the previous Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, and is seen by many within the Balkans as a conciliatory determine. Individuals round Djokovic imagine that he’s not as in style as Federer and Nadal partly as a result of he comes from a small nation with a foul repute. However that’s not essentially an expression of Serbian nationalism, and there’s probably some fact to it.

The Bosnian-American author Aleksandar Hemon, who teaches at Princeton (and is a co-writer of “The Matrix Resurrections” screenplay), advised that what Djokovic really thinks is sort of inappropriate: His world-conquering success has made him a mythological determine in Serbian tradition, the embodiment of Serbian greatness who has landed a crushing blow towards the enemies of his nation.

“He has nice worth,” Hemon mentioned. “He’s type of proof that we’re higher than they assume we’re.”

And likewise, the Djokovic controversy in Australia has performed into the sense of victimhood that animates Serbian nationalism — a perception that “the West hates him as a result of he’s a Serb,” as Hemon put it.

The indignation in Serbia could not subside even after the Australian Open ends. If Djokovic continues to withstand vaccination, his capability to journey and to play different tournaments could possibly be restricted. Throughout the pandemic, one of the best tennis participant on the planet could also be a global pariah. Paul Annacone, who coached Federer and is now a commentator for the Tennis Channel, mentioned the Djokovic scenario saddens him.

“It’s a rattling disgrace,” he mentioned, “and I really feel particularly unhealthy for tennis.”

That is the second time in a matter of months that tennis has discovered itself on the middle of a global dispute. The disappearance in November of the Chinese player Peng Shuai, after she publicly accused a former senior authorities official of sexual assault, renewed concern about China’s human rights document and has forged a shadow over the Beijing Winter Olympics, which start in three weeks. Within the case of Peng, the tennis group got here collectively to demand proof of her security and well-being, and the response has turn out to be a supply of pleasure for the game.

Not so for the Djokovic affair, which is solely a humiliation. Whereas it seems that bureaucratic bungling is at the least partly in charge, Djokovic has been the architect of his personal troubles. He submitted a visa utility that included incorrect and probably deceptive info, and had the temerity to indicate up unvaccinated in a rustic that has endured a number of the world’s strictest Covid-19 lockdowns and that’s sagging below the Omicron variant. On the very least, Djokovic’s method advised insensitivity, though his critics, whose numbers are rising by the hour, are extra inclined to see it as callous indifference. His current admission that he had gone forward with an interview with a French journalist in December after supposedly contracting the coronavirus has brought on particularly intense outrage. (The reporter mentioned that Djokovic didn’t disclose that he had examined constructive.)

Whether or not it was miscalculation, vanity or some mixture of the 2 that led Djokovic to assume he might present up in Melbourne unvaccinated and simply play, he now finds himself remoted within the tennis world. Few gamers have publicly supported him. The previous world No. 1 Martina Navratilova mentioned that she had at all times spoken up for Djokovic and felt that he obtained “a uncooked deal” from followers who had been hostile to him. However not now.

“I’ve been defending Novak for a few years,” she mentioned, “however I can’t defend him on this one.”

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