Jan 18, 2022 - Sports

The Djokovic debacle

A photo illustration of Novak Djokovic.
Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Novak Djokovic will not win the 2022 Australian Open. The question now is just how much he stands to lose.

Driving the news: An Australian court on Sunday denied Djokovic's appeal to have his visa reinstated, resulting in his deportation.

  • The deportation includes a three-year ban on entering the country, though Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the ban could end early.
  • Djokovic, 34, could also miss the French Open in May due to France's new vaccine law.

State of play: Has there ever been a singular event that could so quantifiably impact an athlete's standing among the all-time greats?

  • This was supposed to be Djokovic's coronation as the GOAT: A 10th Australian Open win would have given him 21 major titles, breaking a tie with Nadal and Roger Federer for the most ever.
  • Instead, he'll watch from home as Nadal's own road to 21 just got a whole lot easier (Federer isn't competing).

What they're saying: "This certainly could knock him back," said American star John Isner. "I honestly don't know which way it will go. It could take him a long time to recover, or light a fire under him."

  • "I wish him all the best. I really respect him," said Nadal, who's played Djokovic a tour-record 58 times dating back to 2006. "Even if I [do] not agree with a lot of things that he did the last couple of weeks."
  • "I respect the court's ruling," Djokovic said in a statement. "I hope that we can all now focus on the game and tournament I love."
Photo of Novak Djokovic
Photo: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

Between the lines: It's difficult to grasp why, on the precipice of history, the world's best tennis player would choose this path. But to do it any other way would have been a departure from his modus operandi.

  • Djokovic's obsession with what he puts in his body is unique even among his peers. He's also "a spiritual dabbler, with a weakness for what some regard as quackery," notes NYT’s Michael Steinberger.
  • He follows the teachings of a spiritual guru, who believes in the power of prolonged hugging; his stretching regimen allows him to do things like this; in 2020, he claimed he could clean polluted water with prayer.

Yes, but: "There is an inevitable price to pay for outer-edge mental and physical explorations," writes Washington Post's Sally Jenkins. "[And] maybe the biggest toll is the slow creep of narcissism."

"Novak Djokovic injured his legacy ... not because of his vaccination status and unconventional beliefs, but because he imagined his sacrifices were the only ones that mattered. In the hunt for stand-alone greatness, he lost touch with others."
Sally Jenkins

The big picture: Numerous athletes have taken anti-vaccine stances, with superstars like Aaron Rodgers and Kyrie Irving generating their fare share of headlines. But the Djokovic debacle feels different.

  • This was a global story — front page news for weeks around the world. It was about the virus, but it was also about politics, as a world-famous athlete clashed with an entire country.
  • Rodgers' COVID stance may have cost him some fans, but his legacy should remain largely intact. With Djokovic, there's a sense that he will never be able to escape what just happened in Melbourne.

The last word: It's an unfortunate situation," said defending Australian Open women's champion Naomi Osaka. "He's such a great player and it's kind of sad that some people might remember him this way."

Go deeper: French minister says foreign athletes must be vaccinated to compete

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