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Novak Djokovic may not be a role model, but does he want to be one?

More successful than Federer and Nadal but least popular of the three, Serbian star is his own man, shaped by his game, beliefs and country.

Written by Tushar Bhaduri |
January 23, 2022 10:00:10 am
Tennis World No. 1 Novak Djokovic lost the bid to restore his Australian visa, a day before the start of Australian Open.

One can take a man out of his country, but cannot take his country out of a man.

If the above statement has some truth attached to it, then Novak Djokovic is the very embodiment of Serbia. When the World No.1 and holder of 20 Grand Slam singles titles takes to the tennis court, it is Serbia that is playing against the individual across the net. It explains the near-fanatical following he enjoys in his country, with die-hard fans refusing to believe that he could do any wrong.

And since Djokovic has challenged and, many would say, overthrown the duopoly of the immensely popular Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, elsewhere he is often portrayed as the inconvenient intruder or even the bad guy, in some quarters. He has a winning head-to-head record against his two greatest contemporaries but is still considered the third axis in the triumvirate.

As any scriptwriter would agree, too many good guys are not always good for a story. One needs a villain, or an anti-hero at the very least, to inject some intrigue and jeopardy to a story. With the various controversies and unconventional theories that the Serb has been associated with – including his refusal to get vaccinated – it’s rather easy to paint him that way.

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Novak Djokovic Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic walks with his team after landing at Dubai Airport after the Australian Federal Court upheld a government decision to cancel his visa to play in the Australian Open, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Reuters)

The fact that Federer and Nadal have almost always behaved impeccably, in victory and defeat as well as openly admiring each other, while Djokovic has often been portrayed as a petulant star trying too hard to be loved has only accentuated that impression. Being defaulted from a Grand Slam tournament (2020 US Open), organising an exhibition tour during the pandemic without any safety measures, and being deported from a country aren’t what most people would wear as a badge of honour. Admitting to providing incorrect information in an immigration document (those less charitable will say he lied) will not endear the Serb to those who consider him an arrogant superstar who doesn’t want to play by the rules that others have to.

Even on the tennis court, Djokovic comes across as someone distinct from both Federer and Nadal. The Swiss star’s skill on a tennis court is blindingly obvious, his shot-making ability almost unparalleled. There’s even a much-celebrated article by David Foster Wallace in The New York Times titled Roger Federer as Religious Experience. Nadal’s energy-sapping style makes his hard work and sweat on the court almost tiring to watch, but admirable in its own way.

Djokovic, on the other hand, comes across as a metronome, his error-free game almost machine-like, which makes it tougher for many fans to relate to. The fact that his opponents often feel like hitting against a brick wall makes his game seem a bit less human.

Reflection of his country

It must be said that part of the unfavourable perception about Djokovic can be attributed to his entourage, which sometimes extends to his whole country. His father Srdan Djokovic, especially, comes across as a combustible and bitter character, who feels his son doesn’t get his due despite his accomplishments on the court.

The country itself is a bit of an outlier, with a chequered history. Carved out of erstwhile Yugoslavia in the Balkan civil war, erstwhile Serbian leaders were accused of genocide against other ethnic groups and subsequently, felt the military might of the Western powers. Djokovic grew up in a war-ravaged country with NATO bombs falling on the empty swimming pool that he used as a tennis court. The country may still have a suspicion of mainstream ideas emanating from the West. In many ways, his worldview may have been framed by the conflict in the backdrop of his childhood, prompting a Serbia-against-the-world feeling. It may also explain the defiant crowds that thronged the Belgrade airport on Djokovic’s return from Melbourne, taking selfies with him without any fear of the virus. The pandemic might as well not exist in Serbia.

Alternate beliefs

As far as his worldview goes, switching to a gluten-free diet is not the only ‘interesting’ belief Djokovic follows, nor is his opposition to vaccination. He is an adherent to what can be loosely called alternative medicine.

“In looking at all the documents that the eastern medicine, the oldest medicine in the world, Chinese medicine goes over 5,000 years old, there are different ways of healing, of keeping your body fit, keeping your mind and soul aligned. Everybody has a different way… alternative medicine plays an important part in my life,” he was quoted as saying by in 2018.

Novak Djokovic fans A supporter of Serbia’s Novak Djokovic holds a banner that reads: ”We all are Nole (Novak)” during protest in Belgrade, Serbia, Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. Several hundred people gathered outside Serbian parliament in a show of support for Serbian player Novak Djokovic as he battles the Australian legal system in an attempt to be allowed to stay in the country and compete in the Australian Open later this month. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

It explains the Serb’s reluctance for elbow surgery, which led to his split with Andre Agassi in 2017. Djokovic resisted going under the knife, believing the injury would heal with alternative treatment. When he finally had to relent, he said he cried for three days as “every time I thought about what I did, I felt like I had failed myself,” he told The Telegraph. It also gels with his reluctance to get the vaccine against the coronavirus.

His wife Jelena is known to promote theories like 5G networks causing Covid-19. The association with Spanish tennis coach Pepe Imaz resulted in Djokovic’s gesture of turning to all four sides of the court and showing love to the fans from his heart after every win. It’s a ritual that’s followed even if the crowd had been cheering for his opponent throughout the match. It’s part of a visualisation technique that helps him in high-pressure situations and was famously utilised in the memorable 2019 Wimbledon final against Federer, where Djokovic was deemed the antagonist by fans.

“When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger,’ I hear Novak. I try to convince myself,” he said after the match. Whatever one might say about these notions, they definitely work for him, making him a better and more successful tennis player.

Some of the other beliefs held by the Djokovics include positive thinking changing the composition of food and water, and four pyramid-like hills in a small Bosnian town having healing powers.

He also believes that telekinesis and telepathy are “gifts from this higher order, the source, the god, whatever, that allows us to understand the higher power and higher order in ourselves”.

His own man

Of course, whatever Djokovic believes is his own business, and by not getting vaccinated, he is only exercising his personal choice. But by openly expressing views not backed by science, he may be influencing his legions of followers and fans in the wrong direction.

All of this doesn’t necessarily make Djokovic a bad person. Many of his contemporaries on tour vouch for his helpful and caring gestures, and his several philanthropic initiatives are not talked about as much as those of Federer and Nadal.

He couldn’t play the Australian Open and hence passed on an opportunity to break the Grand Slam tie with his great rivals. It’s also not clear when he will take to the court next, as the surging virus has necessitated more curbs and conditions on international travel. Maybe, Djokovic is banking on the pandemic abating soon so that it could be business as before. Or he may be persuaded to finally take the jab. Who knows!

But whenever and wherever he competes next, it would be interesting to observe the reception he gets from tennis followers. He is a divisive character in the world of sport, and not the type of role model many have in mind. But then, he may not want to be one.

However, next time on court, he is bound to be box office in terms of ratings and fans, if they are allowed in the stands in the first place.

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