Tipping Point: Demonisation of Novak Djokovic is difficult to stomach

Self-described liberals laughing at his predicament should heed their #BeKind hashtag

Kindness was in short supply last week through the whole Novak Djokovic saga, not least from those who chose to drag innocent parties into the story with banter along the lines of "English cricketers to appeal decision to allow them remain in Australia".

At least their weekend ended well with that Ashes draw in Sydney but further south, in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton, Djokovic – sort of Serbia’s Callum Robinson – was still stuck in that hotel.

If you were in any doubt that these are strange times we’re living in, Reuters offered a livestream on YouTube where you could monitor the back entrance of the hotel 24 hours a day, the most exciting thing to happen on visiting it a policeman scratching his nose and vegetables being delivered.

Now, there are certain opinions you share only with your most forgiving of close friends for fear of being ostracised from civil society. Like, say, that you quite like Jamie Vardy, pineapple on pizza and Gogglebox.

He was given the green light to travel to Australia. It's not like he broke into the place and hoped no one would notice him playing in the Rod Laver Arena

You wouldn’t, then, ever admit that you reckoned the treatment of Djokovic has been pretty scummy.

Now, those laughing the loudest at his predicament, the ones with #BeKind in their bios, would argue that he’s brought it all on himself, and they’d be partly right. Only partly, mind, because – as we now know – he was given the green light to travel to Australia. It’s not like he broke into the place and hoped no one would notice him playing in the Rod Laver Arena.

That he was caught in no-man’s land between Tennis Australia’s desperation to get him in and Politics Australia’s determination to kick him back out again, all part of its “unapologetic border security theatre” as the Sydney Morning Herald’s Michael Koziol put it, is hardly his fault.

Neither is the fact that the hotel he’s been put in is an (alleged) sh**hole used as a detention centre to house asylum seekers and refugees.

Maggots

Those hoping that he too would find maggots in his food might have missed the bit of his bio that detailed his work as a Unicef goodwill ambassador, including that part where when he highlighted the plight of refugee children in Serbia, most from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, by visiting them in Belgrade. That didn't go down well with all his fans, notably the foaming-at-the-mouth-at-the-mere-mention-of-refugees kind, but he did it anyway.

Now here, that's not to argue that he's Mother Teresa; there are reasons why he's less than loved in the tennis world and has never received the same levels of cap-doffing as Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal, despite winning the same number of Grand Slams.

The gamesmanship. The (alleged) feigned injuries. (“Two hurt ankles, bird flu and Sars,” as Andy Roddick put it, listing out Djokovic’s “injuries” after their 2008 US Open quarter-final when the Serb took two medical timeouts.) The bathroom breaks, just when his opponents are finding their rhythm. The racket-smashing. The run-ins with umpires and linespeople. Bouncing the ball so often before serving, his opponents nearly lose the will to live. Setting up an independent tennis players’ association that didn’t appear to include any women. And so on.

So, yeah, there’s a lot not to love, even if he’s far from the only one in the above naughty list.

But his daftest moment probably came in the summer of 2020 when he launched his pandemic-defying exhibition Adria Tour, which came to a grinding halt when he and a number of its participants got, well, Covid.

“An anti-scientific crank hiding in plain sight,” the Telegraph’s Simon Briggs said of him last week.

Elbow problem

Briggs, though, went on to recall interviewing Djokovic in 2018 and asking him about his reluctance to get surgery on a nagging elbow problem, an issue that had severely impacted on his game. He eventually gave in and had an operation, but doing so had an extraordinary effect on him.

We can roll our eyes all we like, we can call him an anti-scientific crank, and we'd probably be right. But it's what he believes, he's not doing it for Twitter likes

“I was trying to avoid getting on that table because I am not a fan of surgeries or medications. I am just trying to be as natural as possible, and I believe that our bodies are self-healing mechanisms . . . I just cried for two or three days afterwards . . . every time I thought about it, I felt like I had failed myself.”

He cried for two or three days, he felt like he failed himself. We can roll our eyes all we like, we can call him an anti-scientific crank, and we’d probably be right. But it’s what he believes, it’s what he feels, he’s not doing it for Twitter likes. And with 20 Grand Slams to his name and still being in prime condition at 34, it will be pretty darn difficult to persuade him that the route he’s taken hasn’t been a wise one. (Although the elbow surgery probably helped).

“He’s a very strange cat, Novak,” Nick Kyrgios once said of him, and when Nick Kyrgios is calling you a strange cat, you know you must be severely strange.

But the demonising of Djokovic, and the chuckling at what has happened him in the last week, has been a decidedly uncomfortable watch. No, he’s not entitled to wander around the globe unvaccinated, and he has to live with the consequences of his beliefs, which will, possibly, result in him never passing that 20-Grand-Slams mark.

But he’s entitled to his beliefs – so long, need it be said, as they don’t harm others. And if he’s willing to pay the price for them, leave him be. And if you give him the green light to enter your country, and then chuck him in a sh**hole of a hotel because there’s an election coming up, and because he’s rich you think you’re pulling the smartest of political strokes by inserting him into your theatre, then you’re the very worst.

Meantime, the self-described liberals who mock him are beginning to sound, well, decidedly illiberal.

A suggestion: #BeKind.

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