It’s finally over. Novak Djokovic’s appeal of the revocation of his visa by Australia’s Immigration Minister was rejected, and the country finally got to punt his water-mutating brain elsewhere. Which means Djokovic will not be breaking the record for most Grand Slam titles in Melbourne, though that will come soon enough, nor winning his 10th Aussie Open (or fourth in a row). One wonders if his consolation prize of being a cultural touchstone now and the center of heated, moronic debate will be enough for him. One gets the sense that it will be.
You have to hand it to Djokovic. When he exits a Grand Slam recently he really makes it count. A year and a half ago he was disqualified from the US Open for cracking a linesperson with a ball that he launched in frustration over losing a game. A year later, at the cusp of history and a calendar Grand Slam and with the crowd finally firmly on his side, it became too much and he was utterly crushed by Danil Medvedev in the final. And now this.
Perhaps this all wouldn’t have been so weird, frustrating, and stupid if Djokovic wasn’t constantly aware of what is being said about him, how he’s being treated, and if he had any sense of the world around him. Djokovic has always begged for the adulation that has come to Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal, while he’s had to settle for mostly grudging respect from tennis fans, as he’s ascended to the very top of the game and heights no one else has reached. Throughout any run at a Grand Slam, you can see him striving to be loved and pandering to the crowd. The salutes after wins, the desperate pleas for more noise at times, the constant imploring the fans to be on his side. But He’ll immediately snap at them with a defiant roar when he feels fans cheering for his opponent.
It’s not clear why Djokovic never got the same love. Perhaps it was just all used up by Nadal and Federer. Djokovic’s game isn’t nearly as accessible or inviting to watch, as it’s more of bludgeoning of opponents than art. He certainly had some prickly moments both on-court and off in his youth, though some of that was response to what other players were saying about him. Djokovic should be loved, in that he has a unique background for a tennis player, emerging from war-torn Serbia. He faced challenges few, if any, of the top players do, and his family certainly put in the sacrifices so that he could overcome them. He’s not a country club, tennis-school robot.
And perhaps that instilled an edge in Djokovic that few have, that causes him to constantly prove people wrong and sneer while doing it, even if he tries to cover it up with a smile after. It’s almost certainly what’s made him the player he is, but also has kept most of the tennis world at a distance too.
And certainly it played a role in Djokovic treating the vaccine and the Australian Open’s rules as just something else he had to overcome. If you squint, you can see why Djokovic is protective of his body. His career didn’t launch into orbit until he overcame health and stamina issues. This is the same player who retired at this tournament against Andy Roddick years ago due to the heat, and Roddick certainly had thoughts about Djokovic’s physical conditioning. Djokovic, after a diet and training change, is probably one of the fittest people on the planet.
But that triumph led to an arrogance and refusal to see anything else that has put him in this jackpot. Djokovic’s answers have always come from within his camp, and nothing was going to dissuade him. Not having his own tournament turning into a super-spreader event two years ago, or him and his wife catching the virus themselves after it, not anything. Djokovic would never hear anyone else’s opinion, perhaps because he’s never been universally loved in a way he deems worthy.
But when that spills over the line from self-interest to actual danger, then it has to be checked. Djokovic may think he’s doing what’s best for him, as all the far-too-loud anti-vaxxers are, but as the saying goes, “Your freedom to swing your arm stops when you hit me in the face.” Maybe Djokovic can’t see that because he feels no one has cared about him in the way they should.
It is somehow perfect that all of this will for sure keep Djokovic being as beloved as the rivals he will surpass soon. That ship has sailed. He worked so hard for that, wanted it so badly, and then got in his own way of getting that because he couldn’t think about anyone but himself.