By Rupha Ramani Jan. 18, 2022
After his deportation from Australia, the world’s best tennis player, Novak Djokovic looks set to also miss the French Open. The Serb has not always been likeable, but in flouting Covid rules, and endangering others he has crossed a line from where his legend now seems irredeemable.
The first Grand Slam of the year has begun with just about everybody ironically talking about what will be missing rather than what will be available. World number 1, Novak Djokovic will have to watch the Australian Open play out in front of his eyes, but only on TV and thousands of miles away. It has nevertheless been a shambolic ride for him and many of the authorities involved: from seemingly having his papers in order, to play unvaccinated, to being denied entry, staying in an immigration hotel for days, to being released from detention and having his name appear in the draw that was delayed owing to this see-saw battle (holding my breath); even shockingly admitting having attended some events despite knowing he tested positive in December, to the Immigration Minister cancelling his visa and losing the final battle at the Federal court. This saga has served as fodder for many news agencies and TV stations, because it is a blockbuster in many ways, and has made the Australian authorities look silly. Djokovic in fact has now become illustrative of a difficult, complicated superstar who has crossed a line which is perhaps indefensible.
Djokovic isn’t the well-mannered, chocolate-faced poster boy of world tennis. Looking back at his career path, you get a strange sense that this Serb was pretty much predicting his future.
Djokovic isn’t the well-mannered, chocolate-faced poster boy of world tennis. That is a fact many know all too well and something that is well documented. Fewer though would know that he wasn’t well-liked from his early days on court itself. Looking back at some of the moments that defined his career path, you get a strange sense that this Serb was pretty much predicting his future. Djokovic was playing prophet and that too from the time he was a scrawny 19-year old.
His very first encounter with Rafael Nadal was at Roland Garros back in 2006. He retired hurt from the match trailing 4-6, 4-6 after which he said, “I think I was in control, everything was depending on me. Even with the sore back, I think I played an equal match with him… He’s not unbeatable, he’s beatable.” The sheer audacity, you’d think. The following year, Djokovic beat not only Nadal but Roger Federer and Andy Roddick as well – the top 3 seeds back then – to clinch an ATP title. He told you so, cockily enough.
Much like the good, the soothsayer in Djokovic also predicted the bad. A reporter at the 2016 ATP Finals asked Djokovic about his angry show of hitting a ball straight at the crowd after he lost the first set which Djokovic laughed off. Upon being pressed by the potential dangers of such behaviour, Djokovic claimed that in fact ‘almost serious’, or ‘close to hurting someone’ was not the same. “Why have I not been suspended then…” A few years later, Djokovic was disqualified from accidentally hitting a line judge with the ball. These are both different sides of the player, who is both cocky and yet, in moments, completely dishevelled and out of control.
Djokovic may well be a complicated star, but his inelegant methods finally hit the conforming wall of a global pandemic.
Stefanos Tsitsipas in an interview with a TV station recently said that Djokovic always ‘played by his own rules’. It’s probably an adage that Djokovic has earned off the field, just as much as on it. The man who put Serbia on the tennis map in a sport that certain European countries and USA staked their claim over, did so by playing an invasively aggressive form of tennis. Djokovic felt that the only way he could find a place for himself in a world that was divided between two legends, was to disrupt it. A destructive prophet. A man who unabashedly says what he truly feels, the Serb has been as hard to love as he has been mercurial in denying both Federer and Nadal their glorious swan songs.
But play villain enough times, and you kind of start believing in the merits of excess. Djokovic may well be a complicated star, but his inelegant methods finally hit the conforming wall of a global pandemic. A pandemic that requires everyone, to think from the perspective of the collective rather than just the individual, however brilliant.
His motivations now seem suspect, and his legacy forever consigned to despotic debates about his personality rather than his achievements.
Fudging dates and details, claiming a clerical error and flouting covid rules and apologising for it later paints Djokovic as a lesser genius. His motivations now seem suspect, and his legacy forever consigned to despotic debates about his personality rather than his achievements. In his lifelong dream and fight to get to the top and prove he’s the best in the world of tennis, Djokovic failed to grasp that there are indeed two separate worlds that, at some point, have to be dealt with differently. While aspiration and the desire to win govern the rules of sport, in life, social and political responsibility are varying aspects of your identity. To disown them is not an option.
While aspiration and the desire to win govern the rules of sport, in life, social and political responsibility are varying aspects of your identity. To disown them is not an option.
The problem here is that Djokovic might only register this farce as an affirmation of him having rankled the world, climbed to the top and then ridiculed its rules and mannerisms. Good sense would dictate a certain amount of contemplation, and perhaps a radical change to the way the Serb functions as the social cog of a system much larger than tennis, or for that matter, elite sport.
What’s unfortunate here is that Djokovic could have, and may well still, become the greatest tennis player to have lived – his stats don’t lie. To do it in the era of Federer and Nadal only embellishes an already unreal feat of sporting greatness. But had this greatness been punctuated by the humility of ordinary tasks, responsibilities and accountability, Djokovic may not have crossed this line beyond which he now looks, at the end of it all, irredeemable. Maybe, not everything in life is an odd-against challenge. Certain things, Mr Djokovic, are not made to put you down, but collectively raise everyone up.
When she isn't watching sports, Rupha Ramani is dreaming of getting back to playing some sport. Now a freelancer, she worked as a reporter, presenter, and producer in a news channel for seven years, and was a producer at Star Sports for over four years.