To its detractors, Novak Djokovic has been cavalier and reckless in the face of a deadly pandemic. But the tennis star’s students of the game note that bending reality has been a secret to his success, so far.
the dizzying saga playing in Australia over Djokovic’s refusal to get a coronavirus shot cemented his image as a defiant figure in men’s tennis and made the world No. 1 player an unwitting new hero of the anti-vax movement. He’s earned a new, and surely undesirable, nickname: No-vax.
In many ways, Djokovic has handled the pandemic as if it were a tennis match, ignoring the long odds and favoring alternative remedies to traditional medicine. His unconventional approaches to physical and mental fitness over the years have included consulting spiritual gurus, posing in hyperbaric chambers, visiting healing “pyramids,” and working with a trainer to develop mind-warping skills. reality.
But the current reality is that every player in the Australian Open, which begins Monday, needs a valid COVID-19 vaccine or medical exemption to participate. The country’s immigration minister on Friday canceled the visa of unvaccinated Djokovic, citing considerations of health and “good order”.
Djokovic, who appealed the decision, now finds himself facing possible deportation and at the center of a polarizing issue, with fans on either side of the vaccine debate.
For the 34-year-old best Serbian player, the timing couldn’t be worse. This Australian Open was meant to be a crowning moment as he seeks his record 21st Grand Slam title, a feat that would catapult him past rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, with whom he is tied at 20. .
Other players and former coaches have urged Djokovic to accept a COVID-19 vaccine, saying tennis needs him on the court, without fueling political debates.
“All of this could have been avoided, as we all did, by getting vaccinated,” Spanish tennis star Garbiñe Muguruza said at a pre-tournament press conference in Melbourne on Saturday. “Everyone knew the rules very well. Just follow them, and that’s it. I don’t think it’s that difficult.
Boris Becker, a former top player who coached Djokovic from 2013 to 2016, said the same determination and stubbornness that fuels Djokovic’s strength on the pitch may also be his weakness.
“He’s a street fighter. It’s his mentality, and that’s what made him great and so successful. It’s hard to change that,” Becker said in a recent interview with BBC Sport.
Djokovic has often attributed his tenacity to growing up in war-torn Serbia in the 1990s. of tennis pedigree and few tennis courts to become the world’s No. 1 player.
As a child in Belgrade, Djokovic developed a passion for tennis at an early age. He trained at a club that used an empty pool as a makeshift tennis court. He spoke of cut short training sessions and runs to bomb shelters, and huddled with his family for entire nights, as NATO planes targeted the Serbian capital in 1999 during the Kosovo war .
Being exposed to emotional trauma at such a young age gave him an early perspective on how to overcome adversity and crystallized his motivation.
“Most people don’t decide what they want out of life when they’re 6, but I did,” Djokovic wrote in his 2013 diet and fitness book, Serve to Win. Inspired by watching Pete Sampras win Wimbledon on TV, he decided it would be him one day. “For the next 13 years, I gave every day of my life to achieve my goal.”
Djokovic won his first major tournament title at the Australian Open in 2008, but it took him three years to claim another.
The turning point in his career came in 2011 when Djokovic won 10 titles including three Grand Slams and he reached the No. 1 ranking in men’s tennis for the first time.
“It’s not a new racquet, a new practice, a new coach or even a new service that has helped me. It was a new diet,” Djokovic wrote in his book, which explained how going gluten-free helped him end his years of frequent fatigue during long matches, sometimes collapsing on the stomach. ground and having trouble breathing.
Players usually speak with admiration of Djokovic’s talent, his physical agility which can produce jaw-dropping performances and how he mastered his mental game. “His best trait is his mind,” American player Sam Querrey said of Djokovic last year.
In 2016, Djokovic teamed up with Pepe Imaz, a Spanish coach who had a modest tennis career, then opened a tennis academy based in Marbella with the motto “Amor y Paz” (Love and Peace). It was after working with Imaz that Djokovic began his now iconic gesture of turning to all four sides of the tennis court when he wins and throwing love to the fans from his heart.
He also immersed himself in meditation to help calm his mind and learned visualization techniques which he says made him feel lifted above stressful situations.
Djokovic described the method to an audience at the tennis academy in 2016, seated on a stage alongside Imaz. Imagine being stuck in a traffic jam and feeling frustrated and confused by all the cars, people, sounds, he said.
“What if for a second, instead of being part of traffic, you were out of traffic on the hill and watching traffic?” says Djokovic.
He applied these techniques to tennis.
After saving two match points to beat Federer in a five-set thriller in the 2019 Wimbledon final, Djokovic explained how he coped during what was “probably the most mentally demanding match” of his career, playing arguably against the most beloved tennis player of all time.
“So when the crowd chants ‘Roger’, I hear Novak,” he said. “I’m trying to convince myself.”
Some of Djokovic’s convictions have made negative headlines. In May 2020, he claimed during an Instagram Live interview with self-styled wellness guru Chervin Jafarieh that people can use positive thinking to change the makeup of toxic foods and polluted water.
Djokovic and his wife, Jelena, share esoteric New Age beliefs and together visited the Bosnian mountain town of Visoko, where some believe four pyramid-shaped hills offer healing powers, a claim disputed by scientists.
The tennis star’s visits have boosted tourism to the site where Bosnian amateur archaeologist Semir Osmanagic has opened a pyramid-shaped park which includes a network of underground tunnels which he says exude a special energy.
Osmanagic, who has been pictured giving Djokovic personal tours of the park, backs the player’s anti-vaccine stance.
“He’s an exceptional athlete who is very strict about what he eats, drinks and what he puts in his body, and he stands for freedom of choice,” Osmanagic told AP.
Contrary to the heavy criticism Djokovic has faced internationally, he enjoys wide support in Serbia, where revoking his Australian visa is seen as anti-Serbian. Until the drama Down Under began, Djokovic had refused to say if he was vaccinated but it was clear he was skeptical of vaccines.
“I’m personally against vaccines and I wouldn’t want anyone to force me to take one so I could travel,” he said in an April 2020 online chat with other players from Serbian tennis.
His vaccination status isn’t Djokovic’s first controversy, but the long-running Australian Open saga raises questions about his legacy.
Djokovic was criticized earlier in the pandemic for hosting a tennis tournament in the Balkans in June 2020, at a time when professional tennis was shut down. Photos and videos have emerged showing players ignoring social distancing and partying after hours without masks. The tournament was scrapped after several players, including Djokovic and his wife, tested positive for coronavirus.
A few months later, he was kicked out of the US Open after hitting a ball in frustration and it slammed into a linesman’s throat. It was unintentional and Djokovic has repeatedly apologized, but his action has exposed a fiery temper that he is working hard to suppress.
“He’s already had enough moments and enough question marks to permanently tarnish his legacy,” ESPN tennis commentator Pam Shriver said on a recent conference call. “But certainly nothing will tarnish his record.”
Melbourne Park players weighed in on the same question on Saturday.
“He still won 20 Grand Slams. He still has the most weeks as world No. 1. He still has the most Masters Series (titles),” said Alexander Zverev, the 2020 US Open finalist who is close to Djokovic. “Don’t question his legacy because of this.”
Reigning Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka called the vaccine saga an unfortunate situation: “He’s such a great player, and it’s kind of sad that some people remember him from this way.”
Gecker reported from San Francisco; Pugmire reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia; Barbara Surk in Nice, France; Sabina Niksic in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina; John Pye in Melbourne and Howard Fendrich in Washington contributed to this report.
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