Novakcine, no cry
The world may end, but Roland Garros will go on
Novak Djokovic gave his first interview since being his non-appearance at the Australian Open, and the reviews have been almost universally terrible. They might be even worse that the ones for that Cats film, and that had James Corden in it.
You could see the headlines coming from miles off. Djokovic made clear that he isn’t going to get vaccinated and that, if the price is not appearing at Wimbledon, Rolland Garros and even putting his reputation as ‘one of the greatest players to ever pick up a racket’, it’s a price he’s willing to pay. ‘The principles of decision making on my body’ he told the BBC’s Amol Rajan ‘are more important than any title or anything else.’
The continuing refusal was hardly unexpected. Repentance of any kind in the public world is as rare as seeing someone actually enjoying a pint of Foster’s. As soon as he furnished the malice of his enemies with the arms of truth, I had Vietnam-like flashforwards of the myriad thought pieces that would come out as a result (worse, I suspected even I’d have a bash). My premonition was right. They have been, almost uniformly, some variation on ‘not a good look Novak’. But with every pre-programmed keystroke, the generic commentariat demonstrate their expertise not in polemic half-witticisms, but in hearing what they want, rather than what they’re being told.
It’s hardly their fault. They are hungry Salmon and Djokovic is a well presented Jock Scott. They are drawn to him, inexorably, through instinctive need for survival and sustenance. As the perpetual censors of the morals of the populations, they have decided Djokovic’s position is self-evidently bad, and proceeded accordingly. It is not really about him, but he is handy prey, a high-profile, jet-setting holdout. He has always been respected, but never popular. He has gone through almost his entire career with the crowd cheering for his opponent, no matter the opponent. Or crowd.
With Wimbledon and the French Open ahead, the Djokovic Debate isn’t about to reach its’ welcome end — regardless of war in Russia. The world may end, but Roland Garros will go on. Djokovic, as most lightning rods are, is treated unfairly by these attacks. In his next interview he would do well to ask, in the words of Didius Julianus; ‘what evil have I done?’ He doesn’t think he’s special or above the law. He just doesn’t want to get vaccinated.
Many of the attacks portray him as an anti-vaxxer. Surely the only reason someone not to get vaccinated is a totally warped view of the world, a propensity to lean into conspiracy theories. This of course overlooks the fact that Djokovic isn’t an anti-vaxxer. Or at least, if he is, he’s crap at it. He doesn’t campaign or promote his beliefs, helped set up vaccination hubs at two tournaments and, whilst he was its’ head, the ATP was actively encouraging players to get vaccinated. In the interview, he suggested he may get the vaccine in the future. Perhaps, of course, he is merely playing 3-D chess.
Perhaps he just has a different medical approach. He certainly has form in bizarre medical decisions; rather than have surgery on an elbow injury immediately, he carried it, hoping it would heal naturally. For a year and a half.. Only after it failed to heal after a full six months out of the game did he go under the knife.
His beliefs in this case have been labelled pseudo-scientific, referencing his reticence to take the vaccine because ‘as an elite professional athlete, I’ve always carefully reviewed, assessed, everything that comes in from the supplements, food, the water that I drink, sports drinks, anything really that comes into my body.’ Imagine! A man who has spent his entire life honing himself to the peak of physical perfection might come to a different decision about what he wants to do with his body than someone who sits hunched over their desk all day, furiously penning Telegraph pieces.
Holding out amongst athletes is not unusual. There is little research so far about the potential effects on sporting performance and people with the kind of unrelenting dedication necessary to succeed at Djokovic’s level are always more likely to be uncomfortable blindly taking in new substances. Even I can see where he is coming from. I used to be what the bullies at school called ‘a right chunker’, but after losing three stone and taking up triathlons, I am incredibly careful about what I eat. For example when someone offers me a gel on a bike ride, I always refuse, because I got in shape by dropping carbs. Now I’ve lost that weight that approach doesn’t make sense, because you need carbs for fuel, but I stick with it. I have another friend who has lobbied a single manufacturer of nutrition products for sponsorship for three years, turning down more lucrative opportunities, because it is the only one he is happy using. I did two Olympic distance triathlons last year. My friend did one Ironman. We are amateurs; Djokovic is possibly the GOAT. I can only imagine the lengths to which he has had to take this process in order to beat Nadal and Federer so regularly. His body is more than a tool with which he earns a fabulous living; it is his entire purpose of being.
The way his interview has been received also raises wider questions about how our attitudes to, and how we treat, those who remain unvaccinated. Djokovic is the one player in the ATP Male Top 100 left unvaccinated. Of course, he is also number one, which skews the analysis from quantity towards quality. Isn’t a 99% participation rate in anything hugely impressive? There are always going to be resistors. There are people who still think Hitler is alive, that the Moon Landings were faked, that Italy should still be in the Six Nations. Would we accept this approach to the rest of the population? If we reached a vaccination rate of 99%, I think most would be happy enough for even the staunchest apostate to resume living their lives as they did before COVID. Besides that, given the number of people who will have perfectly legitimate exemptions, pursuing this policy in a world where 99% of the population would be vaccinated this would be verging on medical malpractice.
Genuine respect for bodily autonomy should mean we can allow for the occasional holdout. But the world has no time for such niceties. Djokovic is a celebrity, and a celebrity holdout. Celebrities, after all, have led the way in getting the vaccine, selflessly jostling, twisting arms to get the jab as soon as possible.
Personally, I never engage in any medical treatment until I’ve seen it’s been mass-endorsed by people I’ve never met, from a country I’ve never been to, who play a sport I only watch on Eurosport. Next up, Johannes Thingnes Bø and Émilien Jacquelin will convince me to cure my recurring ankle issue by rubbing basil on it.
The hope seems to be that if the price can be raised just high enough, Djokovic will cave. He is the greatest tennis player in the world, possibly of all time. He is in the prime of his career and should end up with plenty more titles than Nadal or Federer. If he says he is prepared to forego almost certain wins at Wimbledon and Roland Garros, which would help cement his reputation as the GOAT, what more do you have to raise the stakes?
Besides, Djokovic is a committed Orthodox Christian. Martyrdom is, of course, the highest honour for which any Christian might hope. The blood of martyr, after all, is the seed of the church. It remains to be seen whether this particular martyr will be seeded at Wimbledon.