Djokovic and Nadal’s Saudi exhibition match is a mistake
Duo to play each other on December 22nd as part of preparation for Australian Open
Novak Djokovic will take on Rafael Nadal in an exhibition match in Saudi Arabia on December 22nd. Photograph: Justin Setterfield/Getty
Of the many withering put-downs John McEnroe uttered in his playing career, a favourite remains his response to why he refused to play Björn Borg in apartheid South Africa: “I’ve got better ways to earn a million dollars.”
In nine words McEnroe told the world he did not need to compromise his values or expose himself to ridicule – even for a million dollars. He was worth more than that. He was good enough to make up the slack somewhere else. He and Borg were at the height of their celebrity, having just played a Wimbledon final that was described then and for years to come as the greatest of all time, to be eclipsed only, perhaps, by that between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in 2008.
In 1980, however, a million dollars was quite some inducement to break the international sporting embargo on South Africa. And this year McEnroe elaborated for the first time about the controversy. Speaking to the American journalist Graham Bensinger he said: “At that time it was worth at least $10m now or more, but I feel proud that I made that decision. I thought to myself: ‘Yeah, this is an unbelievable amount of money but there’s a reason why they’re offering it – because they’re going to take advantage of me and sort of use that propaganda in a way.’
“I was 21 but I could get that. I wasn’t going to be the pawn in that whole thing. I took pride in that. It felt wrong … it wasn’t that difficult a decision. I was 21, I didn’t need the money that bad yet. I think that was one of the better decisions that I made in my career.”
You would imagine, then, 38 years on, that Nadal (who, like McEnroe in 1980, does not need the money) and Novak Djokovic (likewise) would come up with a similar response in almost identical circumstances. As of this moment, however – no.
At the first opportunity to explain or justify their involvement in a $1m-apiece exhibition on December 22nd in Saudi Arabia (where state-sponsored killing is as blatant as it was in South Africa in 1980), they were toweringly equivocal in press conferences in Paris at the weekend. Nadal said of his reluctance to be drawn into a discussion about the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi: “Of course I’m aware of all the situation. But I had a commitment since one year ago to play there. And my team is talking to them, to analyse the things. That’s it.
“As you know, when these kind of things happen … it’s terrible that one journalist lost the life. I know something happened very bad inside there. So we are looking about how evolves the situation and I hope the things will clarify as soon as possible.”
Djokovic was equally adroit at avoiding a head-on confrontation with his hosts. “I personally always try to be very apolitical. I don’t like to involve myself in any political exchange or situations. And it’s unfortunate that we are both drawn into this right now.
“All I can say is that we have the commitment with them for over a year. Actually last year when we were discussing this potential match-up, we agreed that it’s going to happen in December as a kind of a lead-up to the beginning of the season. And it was my professional tennis decision to do that.
“And of course I know, I’m aware of what’s happening. And it’s sad, of course. It’s the only thing that you can feel when you see something like that and when you hear something like that. But I can’t say more than that. My team right now is in touch with the people in Saudi Arabia as well as Rafa’s and of course we are all talking to understand the situation better.
“Right now we just don’t have obviously enough information and we have to look into that a bit more and then we’ll make our decision soon. It’s a commitment. And I’ve been always trying to be very professional and respectful towards people that I have commitment with. We are trying to take in consideration everything, all the options.”
Exactly how much more information even athletes inside their bubbles would need to know about an incident that has played globally across all media for weeks is difficult to imagine.
So, until they withdraw, this pointless public relations stunt in Jeddah on December 22nd goes ahead with their blessing, before they fly out to Australia for the Australian Open. Indeed, central to their defence was the claim that “the tournament” was part of their preparation for the first major of 2019 – as if they would not benefit more from rest (given the repeated complaint that they have too many commitments) or playing in a way more competitive environment than an over-hyped friendly hit in front of royalty in the desert.
And what excuse will Europe’s best golfers come up with if they take part in the Saudi International, a tournament added to the 2019 schedule and due to take place at the Royal Greens Golf and Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City from January 31st? Probably none.