Novak Djokovic fought the Australian government in the same way he fought his rivals on the tennis court: with defiance and stone-willed refusal, with every tool at his disposal and every last fibre of his being, with an unshakeable and messianic belief in his own supremacy. He contested his deportation as if it were a crucial break point, as if it were his last stand against total oblivion. This time, however, something startling happened. He lost.
Djokovic is unused to losing. When he does, he tends to explain it away as the product of his own failings. He courteously congratulates his opponents, but ultimately leaves you with the impression that he decides who wins and loses. His collection of trophies and records – 20 grand slam titles, the most weeks at world No 1 in the history of men’s tennis – suggests he is probably right. But implicit in that too is an assertion of control and individual impregnability: this is my business, and I will deal with it myself.
The problems arise when you begin to conflate the hard white lines of the tennis court with the messy compromises of the world at large. Djokovic would hardly be the first professional athlete to labour under the delusion that his superior sporting ability confers some kind of elite virtue, a firewall against judgment and scrutiny. Nor would he be the first to confuse his athletic gifts with expertise in other fields: lifestyle, health and medicine, even politics. “I can show you how to change not just your body but your whole experience of living,” he promises in his 2013 book Serve to Win: part-autobiography, part-nutrition guide and a presage of the Instagram influencer culture that bundles up diet, mental health, body-narcissism and alternative medicine into a shiny, sellable package.
No athlete is obliged to stay in their lane. But anybody who leverages their fame, power and privilege in this way has a responsibility to do so with care, to reckon with the consequences of their choices, to recognise when they have become counter-productive. And perhaps the most disquieting aspect of the last fortnight, as the Djokovic circus rolled out of Melbourne Airport and on to our smartphones and television screens, is the way Djokovic’s choices have unleashed forces and currents far larger than him, or indeed tennis: a toxic chain reaction of mistrust and resentment that could lead us into some extremely dark places.
You could see it in the seething throngs who gathered outside Djokovic’s hotel to rail against Australia’s vaccine laws. You could see it in the Serbian politicians attempting to redefine this visa paperwork dispute as a parable of liberty versus tyranny. “A symbol of the free world, a beacon of free men,” declared the former prime minister Nebojsa Covic. You could see it, too, in the bowels of the internet, where one conspiracy movement has anointed Djokovic as its “unvaxxed sperm hero”. Which, if nothing else, is one way of settling the GOAT debate.
Doubtless Djokovic would repudiate many of the causes now attempting to trade on his name. And of course this stuff has always been there in various forms. But thanks to Djokovic and his belligerence, it now has a bigger platform, attention and momentum, lenses and microphones. There is a time to fan the flames and a time to rein things in, and when Nigel Farage is travelling to Serbia to meet your parents and pose for photos in your trophy room, that time has probably passed.
There is a natural temptation to see Djokovic himself as something of a hapless innocent in all this, a credulous idiot with his healing water and kooky science playing with toys he knows nothing about. And yes, there is an opportunism on both sides here. Djokovic’s treatment by the Australian government and its ribbiting cane toad of a prime minister has been a nauseating sight. The Australian Open as a tournament has been weakened and overshadowed.
But let’s not pretend we’re dealing with two opposing arguments of equal merit here. Djokovic is not simply some new-age ingenue who ticked the wrong box on a form. We should recall that last month, he tested positive for Covid and then marched straight out of the house to do a photoshoot. This is a man who has done more than any leading player to attack the principle of equal pay in tennis, with his insistence that “women should fight for what they think they deserve and we should fight for what we think we deserve”.
Djokovic himself has explained how his political outlook intersects with his beliefs on health and medicine. “Growing up under communism, you are not taught to be open-minded,” he writes in Serve to Win. “People at the top are invested in making sure we do not question what we are told to believe. Whether it is a communist ruler or the rulers of the food and pharmaceutical industries, people at the top understand that most of us are led by fear.”
At the heart of the Djokovic worldview, then, is an unswerving belief in the power of self-realisation, of the freedom of an individual to alter their own world, irrespective of the consequences of others. It is the same libertarian streak that runs through the anti-vax movement, the American right and a significant part of English national identity, which is why it is hardly surprising we elect leaders who believe the rules are for little people.
This, perhaps, is why Djokovic’s case has incited such strong feelings. It is in many ways a microcosm of the debates tearing societies apart all over the world. What are our responsibilities to each other? How open should our borders be? Where does the right to personal freedom end and the duty to others begin? Who even gets to make these decisions? As Djokovic’s plane took off on Sunday night, it was tempting to see this as an end. In fact, the broader struggle is only just beginning.