The Heels Have Eyes, and Novak Djokovic Knows and Sees All

From his personal battles against vaccinations and quarantines to his belief in the, uh, communicative powers of water, it's been some year at the Church of the World No. 1.
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Of all the men in the world, nobody right now is better equipped to win a tennis tournament than Novak Djokovic. He’s ranked No. 1, as he has been nearly constantly since 2018. He’s 33, which is not so old these days, without any major chronic injuries, which is more than his rivals can say. He’s playing in the Australian Open this week, a tournament he’s won the last two years, and four of the last six, and eight times overall. He’s the favorite, and it’s not particularly close. He’s breezed through his first two matches, as he usually does. That isn’t really news, though. These are the newsy bits, in short:

In April, Djokovic said he would be against setting coronavirus immunization as a condition for return to the tour. “Personally, I am opposed to vaccination, and I wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel,” he told a group of Serbian players in a live Facebook chat. Later, in defending those comments, he said: “I am no expert, but I do want to have an option to choose what’s best for my body. I am keeping an open mind, and I’ll continue to research on this topic.” Over the course of the next month, Djokovic hosted a series of Instagram Live conversations with Chervin Jafarieh, a man who says he can “use the scientific method to create alchemy.” In the video, Djokovic claimed that toxic food and polluted water could be cleansed “through the power of gratitude.”

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In June, with tennis paused during the pandemic, Djokovic organized a charity tournament, the Adria Tour, to be held in Croatia and Serbia. Days after the event began, he (along with, notably, fellow European tennis players Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov) was filmed dancing in a Belgrade nightclub. Soon after, Dimitrov tested positive for COVID-19, becoming the first big name in the tennis world to contract the virus. The exhibition went on anyway, with players, volunteers and spectators packing in tightly after matches for celebrative pictures, but not before Djokovic and his wife, Jelena, (and three other players: Dimitrov, Viktor Troicki and Borna Coric) tested positive. The event was abruptly canceled. Nick Kyrgios, a famous Djokovic needler who has stopped competing entirely during the pandemic, tweeted afterward: “Boneheaded decision to go ahead with the ‘exhibition’ speedy recovery fellas, but that’s what happens when you disregard all protocols. This IS NOT A JOKE.”

In August, with the tour resuming activity, gearing up for the slightly delayed U.S. Open and a first-ever fall edition of Roland Garros, Djokovic had the opportunity to walk back some of his previous errors. And, well ... he said that his anti-vax comments were taken out of context, that “there are vaccines that have little side effects that have helped people and helped stop the spread of some infections,” that he would hold the Adria Tour again if he had the chance and that the media was engaging in a “witch hunt” against him.

Also in late summer, Djokovic resigned from his position as president of the ATP Player’s Council and, along with Canada’s Vasek Pospisil, announced the creation of a players association, which would bargain on revenue sharing, disciplinary actions, player pensions and travel conditions for members of the tour. Great! Less great: The association wouldn't include women’s players, a choice that drew flack from the likes of Andy Murray, who said he’d consider lending his support only if WTA members were included, and Kim Clijsters, who said she wanted to talk to Djokovic to better understand the concerns of this new PTPA. (Djokovic has since said that “around 200 WTA players” have joined the effort.)

June 13, at the Adria Tour in Belgrade: not a mask in sight.

June 13, at the Adria Tour in Belgrade: not a mask in sight.

But right, the U.S. Open. Djokovic was the top seed, and he’d won the tournament in his last healthy appearance, in 2018. Roger Federer, having shut down for the season with a right-knee injury, and Rafael Nadal, wary about intercontinental travel during the pandemic, were both absent from the draw, making the Serb the runaway favorite to win it all. Instead, he was ejected for hitting a linesperson in the throat with a ball during his fourth-round match. This, to be fair, sounds worse than it actually was: Djokovic, after dropping his serve early in the match, frustratedly hit a ball from his pocket toward the back of the court, a benign action you’ll see dozens of times over the course of a tennis tournament. But those balls don’t usually end up hitting human beings. The linesperson was O.K., and Djokovic expressed contrition and concern, both on the court and after the match. The headlines, though, were not flattering. Near the end of a heel-turn year, Djokovic wasn’t given the benefit of the doubt.

There was not much goodwill left come January, when three flights transporting competitors to Melbourne for the year’s first major were flagged as infection sites. Ultimately, 70-plus players were forced to quarantine for two weeks in a hotel, where some of them compared the experience to being in prison. Controversially, Djokovic (along with Nadal, Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka) was flown to Adelaide to complete his quarantine in more accommodating quarters.

Australia has done an exceptional job of containing the virus—less than 1% of the country has been infected, and its death total is still in the triple digits. That’s due, in part, to incredibly strict protocols that have included a nearly four-month lockdown in Melbourne, mandatory quarantine periods for regular citizens entering from abroad and an aggressive limiting of travel even within the country. This year’s Australian Open is starting three weeks later than usual to allow for some degree of safety prep, though seeing the country’s seriousness when it comes to the pandemic, it’s shocking that the tournament is happening at all. Djokovic, though, seemed to think this was all bullshit, and he issued a list of demands on behalf of his fellow players, including a shortened quarantine and private houses for players.

“People are free to provide lists of demands, but the answer is no,” Daniel Andrews, the premier of Victoria, said in response. Kyrgios was a little less political, tweeting: “Djokovic is a tool.”

You might be wondering: That’s the short version? Yes. So it should be clear that Djokovic had an extraordinarily eventful year. Despite there being less tennis played than during any season in the modern era, and despite his being only a decent year (by his competitive standards), Djokovic made more news than he had at any other point during his career. Weirdly, he didn’t even appear to be trying to cause trouble.

Djokovic has always been weighed in contrast to his rivals, two legends of the game who’ve each submitted to being branded within an inch of their lives. Federer cries, but he never seems particularly complicated. Nadal winces, but his desires seem quite clear, quite simple. Djokovic has always been irresistible because of his stumbles, his clumsiness with the press, his occasional crabbiness on the court. He can come off like a bit of an a-hole, because everybody is a bit of an a-hole. But his clear desire to be loved, the humanity of his insecurities, is more relatable than anything represented by the archetypes of the game—the Ice Man, the Hot Head, etc.

Recently, though, Djokovic’s humanity has been a little harder to look at sympathetically. He’s been the court’s contrarian, the country club’s Joe Rogan. A man who, admirably, either doesn’t know or care what his sponsors want him to say. Less admirably: He often seems to not quite understand the effects of his actions or the responsibility of his platform.

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This is not to say that he doesn’t understand he has power. It may be an understatement to say that Djokovic is the most famous man in Serbia. He’s a demigod; he has a Pacquiao-in-the-Phillipines level of recognition and approval. “Novak has put our nation on the map,” Troicki, another Serb, said last year. “He is the most famous person in the whole country and the region.” Djokovic draws thousands of fans just when he practices in his home country. It doesn’t seem far-fetched that, once he retires, he could have a future in Serbian politics. His centrality to the country’s narrative has no U.S. parallel. And so he preaches. He preaches skepticism. He preaches promise. Outside of His house, there is dissent and there are questions, but under the gilded roof, there is understanding that His word is benevolent.

When a person has such approval at home, it’s understandable that all the love could go to their head. Everybody wants to hear your opinion about everything. Imagine the whiplash moving between a world where your words are treated as infallible and a place where the public is appalled when you demand better hotel food. Hear, for long enough, that your word is gold and you may not realize when it’s best to hold your tongue. When somebody tells you so, you might not respond with grace.

Especially at this moment, when conspiracies and misinformation and the algorithms of the internet are starting to show their impact, in increasingly disturbing ways, Djokovic’s archetype—the celebrity who does not understand the bounds of their expertise—seems malignant. Who knows how many people may have effectively been evangelized by Djokovic’s, say, ideological opposition to surgery. (In early 2018, he dropped off the planet competitively while dealing with an elbow injury, refusing surgery until all alternative medicines failed. He said he cried for three days after undergoing an operation. He’s since won five majors.) And now, amid a pandemic, who knows how much harm has been done because the most famous man in the Balkans, and the most important man in tennis, has endorsed the flouting of COVID-19 guidelines and the avoidance of vaccines. We’ve always known that Djokovic lives with his third eye open, but how comfortable should we be with the things it sees?

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The problem with the existence of massive social power is the possibility that one may channel it in the wrong direction. YouTube rabbit holes are littered with exploitations of influence, with bad-faith grifts and preachers unconcerned with what their flock will do once a sermon is over. Djokovic very well may not be one of those guys. Hell, he's probably not. He often seems to draw criticism because he goes out of his way to try to use his influence for good and then puts his foot in his mouth. He’s aware of his power, but not of when to defer or delegate. It is common for once-saviors to succumb to arrogance.

But it’s hard to look away from the Galaxy Brain–ness of it all. The omnipresence of a man who believes his gluten intolerance was diagnosed when he held a piece of white bread to his stomach, and who preaches his love for that kind of pseudoscience for all to hear. At best, it’s amusing, endearing even. The king of tennis hired a coach to teach him telekinesis and levitation! Ha-ha! Here’s a meme! At worst, his words are poison pumped through a firehose.

It is no revelation to say that we give public figures too much power, that we trust too much and assume expertise when often there is none. There have been bad actors with massive profiles before, and there will be bad actors with massive profiles again. But the celebrity chaos agent, the man who becomes convinced of his own ability to know what others can’t, and then vacillates wildly between the righteous and the batshit, seems more prevalent now than at any point in recent memory. By design, there is chaos in the Church of Novak Djokovic.

In two weeks, it’s more likely than not that Djokovic will be hoisting his 18th major trophy, that he’ll be given a microphone and a lectern and another chance to say whatever he’d like to the world. One hopes He is merciful.

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