Champion athletes are the epic heroes of the modern world. They embody certain virtues – fortitude, courage, endurance, grace and will – in a way that other sorts of celebrities can’t. No matter how many social media followers a politician or a film star has, they are never given the unconditional admiration that the very greatest athletes command because politics and cinema are both seen as showbiz in these world-weary times. Only in sport is the public persona accepted unquestioningly as the real person. We instinctively suspect that men like Modi or Akshay Kumar work to build a public image, but we assume that with Jasprit Bumrah and Virat Kohli, what you see is what you get.
That unquestioning faith is one of the reasons why sporting heroes are properly tragic figures when they fall from grace. When Mohammad Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja were accused of match-fixing, horrified fans recoiled in a way that is unique to sport. No one is going to be appalled if, say, a newspaper reports that a charismatic Indian politician has taken a bribe or even murdered a rival. Nor is filmi fandom likely to gasp if it’s revealed that a film star has connections with a criminal underworld. But when Steve Smith cheats, or Lance Armstrong is shown to have won his Tour de France titles with the help of performance-enhancing drugs, their audiences are almost theatrically shocked because even the most hard-bitten athlete is unquestioningly granted the presumption of innocence.
Which brings us to curious case of Novak Djokovic. The greatest player in the history of professional men’s tennis is locked in litigation against the Australian state, and apart from his Serbian compatriots, eccentric libertarians and raving anti-vaxxers, he seems to have no one on his side. This is especially odd because the role of Australian politicians, both federal and state, in creating this mess where Djokovic turns up in Australia with a visa and a seemingly valid exemption, and is then denied entry and detained, has been self-serving and shambolic.
The Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, first tried to pass the buck to the state authorities, who promptly volleyed it back into Morrison’s court, arguing that the country’s borders were the federal government’s business. Then, when Morrison realized that public opinion was outraged by the special exemption granted to a player infamous for his opposition to vaccination at a time when Australians have endured the most stringent rules to keep Covid under control, he decided to grandstand in the public interest. Djokovic’s visa was cancelled by the immigration authorities.
This ought to have been the perfect setting for a surge of sympathy for Djokovic, this spectacle of an athlete being thwarted by an opaque bureaucracy and calculating politicians. And for a moment, there was. An Australian court set aside the visa cancellation, ruling that Djokovic had been unfairly treated by the immigration authorities. Newspaper editors began to call on the Australian government to sort out this embarrassing mess. Nick Kyrgios, an Australian tennis player with a history of confrontation with Djokovic, said he was embarrassed as a tennis player and as an Australian at the way in which Djokovic had been treated.
But the moment passed. At the time of writing, the Australian minister for immigration has exercised his discretion to cancel Djokovic’s visa. Stefanos Tsitsipas, currently World No. 4, has publicly accused Djokovic of playing by his own rules and putting the Australian Open in jeopardy. Rafael Nadal has said pointedly that great tournaments are bigger than any individual tennis player. It’s odd that this great player who has won the Australian Open nine times should have so little public support both in Australia and elsewhere.
A large reason for this lack of sympathy is Djokovic’s unvaccinated status. In this pandemic time, Djokovic’s blithe disregard for precautionary rules and regulations strikes people as tone-deaf and entitled. His track record doesn’t help. Djokovic organized a tennis tournament at the height of a Covid wave where unmasked, un-distanced players helped make the event a Covid hotspot. Australian public opinion shifted sharply against him because of new revelations about inconsistencies and misleading entries in his application to enter Australia to play the Australian Open.
Djokovic had claimed a medical exemption on the grounds that he had recently been infected with Covid in mid-December and had recovered. It turned out that the day after this alleged infection, he had presented awards to young tennis players in Serbia and shortly after, had done a photoshoot with a French magazine. He had compounded these violations by falsely claiming on his travel declaration that he hadn’t travelled in the fortnight before his departure for Australia, when he had, in fact, travelled between Belgrade and Spain.
It’s hard for a sporting public to sustain a faith in an athlete’s innocence when he is caught out breaking rules and then lying about these violations. It comes across as a form of cheating – and nothing is more fatal to an athlete’s reputation than that. But this isn’t a sufficient explanation for the massive backlash against Djokovic. It’s hard to imagine Nadal being treated by French immigration officials in this way, or indeed of Federer being detained by British border officials without the tennis fans of those countries rallying behind them for their great deeds at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. There’s something else at work here.
One straightforward explanation might be that Djokovic upended a rivalry between Federer and Nadal that the tennis public was very invested in, and these entrenched fans are actively hostile to the idea of the Serbian interloper dethroning their gods. There is something to this. You might argue that there’s no reason why Djokovic, arguably the greatest male tennis player ever, shouldn’t have displaced Federer in the way Federer displaced Sampras, but you’d be wrong simply because Federer’s rise coincided with the end of Sampras’s career, while Djokovic has been forced to contend with the playing presence of two remarkably durable rivals.
The unfairness of having to share his pomp with rivals who don’t know when to retire has made Djokovic both indomitable – his win-loss record against Nadal and Federer speaks for itself – and needy. His transparent resentment that his great triumphs weren’t met with full-throated public acclamation has pushed Djokovic into a curious passive-aggressive relationship with fans: he both craves their applause and taunts them for withholding it when he wins, as he usually does.
Why do fans forgive Federer his narcissism and not Djokovic his foibles? Federer is capable of astonishing insensitivity. After beating Andy Roddick in five memorable sets in the final to win Wimbledon, he unzipped his kit bag and pulled out a jacket with 15 emblazoned on its back in gold and wore it, as if he were announcing to all the world that his victory had been a foregone conclusion. Unfairly, Federer’s amazing grace makes his preening self-love seem a minor self-indulgence, but Djokovic’s grinning prickliness darkens his less obvious genius like a five o’clock shadow.
One reason for that is the historical baggage that Djokovic carries. He is the most famous Serbian in the world. He embodies Serbia, in the same way as his coach, Goran Ivanisovic, used to embody Croatia, both nations that emerged out of the genocidal civil war that tore Yugoslavia apart. Because of Serbia’s responsibility for genocidal violence against Bosnian Muslims, Serbia’s ethnic nationalism has something of the night about it. It is a revanchist nationalism that refuses to recognize Kosovo’s status as an independent country. This sense of being a victim, of being hard done by, is hardwired into that nation’s sense of self. Djokovic has done commercials that riff off the hardship of his childhood, growing up as he did in a country bombed into submission by US jets. During the current cock-up in Melbourne, his father, Srdjan Djokovic, claimed that his son was being crucified like Christ.
In the cosmopolitan world of globalized tennis, Djokovic has chosen to cast himself as the undeferential, all-conquering provincial. His public scepticism about vaccination, his casual misogyny (five years ago he questioned the principle of equal prize money for men and women), and his aggrieved sense of destiny, make it all but certain that in difficult times (such as his ongoing wrangle with the Australian state), he will inspire more schadenfreude than sympathy. He will almost certainly win that twenty-first Grand Slam title and edge ahead of Federer and Nadal in the G.O.A.T stakes, at once unequalled and unloved.
Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in Delhi. His most recent book is ‘Homeless on Google Earth’ (Permanent Black, 2013).
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