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There is a world of difference between opposing vaccination outright and questioning the notion that it should be forcibly compelled
CHIEF SPORTS WRITER
15 February 2022 • 12:32pm
To vilify Novak Djokovic with the label “anti-vaxxer” is to misunderstand both the nature of the man and the arguments he is making. Contrary to the case made by the Australian immigration minister in deporting him last month, the Serb has sought neither to persuade his disciples against being jabbed nor to be a poster-boy for conspiracy theorists. It is an oft-overlooked point, amid all the righteous fury at his medical status, that he established vaccination hubs at two tournaments so that other players could be protected if they wished.
This was a nuance he strenuously emphasised in his BBC interview, the first he has given since his abortive attempt to win a 10th Australian Open title turned into a full-blown Covid-19 culture war. “I was never against vaccination,” he said. “I understand that globally, everyone is trying to put a big effort into handling this virus and into seeing an end to this virus.”
There is a world of difference between opposing vaccination outright and questioning the notion that it should be forcibly compelled, whether by governments or by tennis tournaments. Sadly, such are the efforts to caricature Djokovic as the demonic counterpoint to the faultlessly virtuous Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the two positions have become conflated. In the eyes of the majority in tennis, there is nothing he can do to shake the misconceptions that he is a self-absorbed menace to public health.
The supreme obstinacy of Djokovic is well-established, whether through his ability to deny Federer a ninth Wimbledon crown from two championship points down or through his conviction that his body has no need for the interventions of conventional medicine. This is a man who described crying for three days after finally agreeing to surgery on his elbow in 2018, regarding it as an expression of weakness and personal failure.
Even so, it was startling to hear him admit that he would give it all up – the pursuit of Nadal’s 21 major titles, the right to be acclaimed as statistically the greatest player of all time – for the sake of his belief that he should be free to refuse a Covid vaccine.
“Why, Novak, why?” asked the BBC’s Amol Rajan, aghast. But in Djokovic’s view, such a liberty overrides any other concern. He has scaled the most improbable peaks in tennis through his obsessive control of every variable in his physical conditioning, even down to the type of water he drinks. He is not about to make any exception now, especially when his paperwork to enter Australia, admittedly much-disputed, suggests that he has already had the virus twice.
But the realities that he is young, low-risk and supremely fit afford him no immunity to the chorus of international condemnation. The received wisdom is that Djokovic, through his apparent prioritising of his own interests over the common good, must be stripped of any right to compete.
The very reason he stands to be banned from Roland Garros in May is because Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, is on a stated mission to “p--- off” the unvaccinated. It is reflexively accepted by many of his peers that this is the cross he must bear. “The only clear thing for me is if you are vaccinated, you can play,” argues Nadal.
It sounds so simple when you express it in those terms. Except Djokovic is a figure of sufficient complexity to bewilder even his own biographer. “I think he’s getting vaccinated,” predicted Daniel Muksch, after Nadal overtook him in Melbourne on the all-time list. That theory has been scotched by the world No 1’s remarks to the BBC, with Djokovic seemingly determined to uphold his principles even if it means losing his claims on sporting immortality.
You are quite entitled to believe that his absence at the French Open and Wimbledon would be no great loss, or that Nadal’s staggering win in Australia proves tennis can survive perfectly well without him. But it is worth considering exactly what this school of thought represents. It is tantamount to claiming that Djokovic should be stripped of his place in history purely because of his insistence on bodily autonomy.
This is a worrying equation to adopt. The case for Djokovic to be vaccinated is reasonable enough, in light of the harm that he is knowingly inflicting on his career and reputation. But the idea that his status in the game should be forever compromised by his scepticism towards vaccine mandates? That is not an implication with which anyone, irrespective of taste for Djokovic or his penchant for quackery, should feel comfortable.
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