Early this morning, tennis fans in the Western Hemisphere watched Novak Djokovic accept the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup, the trophy awarded to the men’s singles Australian Open champion.
This was the 93rd professional tennis title Djokovic has won in his career, the 22nd Grand Slam Singles title and his tenth Australian Open championship. His victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas, a 6’4” flashy player from Greece was relatively routine.
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Djokovic dispatched the third best player in the world in straight sets. Upon winning the last point of the match, Djokovic was not moved to come to his knees or fall to the ground as he and many other Grand Slam champions have done over the years. He nodded his head, acknowledged his team and embraced Stefanos at the net.
Yet in his post-match on court commentary Novak said while staring at his family and team in the stands that “this was the biggest victory in my life, considering the circumstances”.
What were these circumstances? Djokovic did not expound but we can guess what he was alluding to. One year ago he had arrived in Australia to defend his title. Unfortunately, he was not allowed to play.
By January of 2022 the people of Australia were being subjected to some of the most draconian measures imposed by any government upon their population in an effort to curb the spread of the SARS-COV2 virus which, by that time, had mutated into a far less virulent version of the original ancestral strain. Impositions were more severe for the unvaccinated.
But Novak refused to get a Covid-19 vaccine, a requirement for being on Australian soil. His vaccination status was not a problem for Tennis Australia, the organization responsible for organizing the event, because Djokovic had a documented bout with Covid-19 a month earlier. He had developed natural immunity and had antibodies in his blood to prove it. He was (and is) arguably one of the fittest human beings on the planet. He was planning on competing in a large stadium with good ventilation in what is for the most part, an outdoor event.
This was not good enough for Australian Prime minister Scott Morrison who sought to make an example of the number one tennis player in the world. There would be no exceptions, otherwise it wouldn’t be “fair” to people of Australia who dutifully rolled up their sleeves so that they could leave their homes to attend the tennis championships.
In a bizarre series of events that could not have ever been anticipated at “the Happy Slam”, Djokovic had his Visa canceled at Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport on Jan. 5, 2022. He was detained for several days and was eventually forced to leave the country.
Djokovic was reticent about his reasons for eschewing the experimental therapy. Unlike iconoclastic rock and roll musicians who assert that the science is settled, Djokovic was quick to acknowledge that he was not an authority on vaccines, the human immune system, coronaviruses, etc. His decision rested on his feelings about bodily autonomy and the resilience and adaptability of the human form, one that he had devoted decades to improve through yoga, diet and meditation.
His years-long dedication to fitness paid off. By January of 2022 he had racked up 20 grand slam titles, matching that of his two rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. An Australian open victory in 2022 would have put him ahead by a nose, a position he had never been in.
Playing in a grand slam event is a big accomplishment for a professional tennis player. Playing in a grand slam final is reserved for the very best. Winning one assures a player an indelible place in the sport’s history. Competing for a 21st title was not just unprecedented, it would have been unimaginable only a decade ago. In this situation, Novak was vying to settle the GOAT debate: who is the Greatest Of All Time?
With all that on the line, Djokovic stuck to his convictions and quietly left the country. Several weeks later he and the rest of the tennis world watched his friend and rival, Rafael Nadal raise the trophy over his head in victory.
Djokovic has been playing catchup in 2022. He was allowed to enter France and compete in the 2022 French Open Championships where he fell short of a title, one that Nadal claimed as well. Novak was victorious at Wimbledon.
This morning the unvaccinated champion from Serbia who often had to practice in an empty swimming pool in his adolescence evened the count with Nadal, 22-22.
The ignominious fashion in which the tennis star was thrown out of Australia, a country that prides itself in its support of sport and sportsmanship was not lost on some members of the Australian parliament who demanded that an official apology be issued in February of last year.
No apology ever came. Neither was any reasonable explanation ever offered as to why Novak could compete this year and not last. Such things like apologies and explanations are not part of a system that has sought to denigrate the non-compliant and silence dissent despite mounting evidence that the experimental therapies placed in the arms of billions of people are neither safe nor effective.
Admitting to a small mistake takes integrity. Acknowledging that a mistake of this magnitude has been made will never happen, especially from authorities and agencies of public health that wield their power by claiming infallibility despite all evidence to the contrary. I have stopped hoping for such things.
I do wonder how such contrition could ever be expressed adequately. Would a statement like, “Sorry about last year Mr. Djokovic. We were just trying to keep Australians safe” suffice? I think not.
Words are empty when people’s lives have been devastated by the mistakes that have been made. Where are the reparations for jobs lost, months of stay at home orders or medical costs for those who have sustained vaccine injuries? Will laws ever be enacted that ensure that a medical therapy will never be mandated?
Yes. It’s a fanciful dream at this point. I am pretty sure that Novak knows this too.
Over the years Djokovic has drawn criticism from fans of his two biggest rivals. Why isn’t he more contemplative like Federer who contextualizes his victories with a grin and a subtle South African accent? Why doesn’t he push the limits of credible humility like Nadal does after he decimates his opponents?
Novak’s critics have always bristled at his unwillingness to hide his confidence and his air of certainty he had around the idea that he would eventually equal and surpass his rivals’ achievements on the court.
After shaking hands with Tsitsipas at the net, Novak walked to his team’s corner of the stadium and unleashed a primal victory scream into the sky. He then jubilantly scaled the wall to embrace his coaches and family, a maneuver that Yannick Noah immortalized in Paris in 1983 after winning his first and only grand slam title. This was Novak’s tenth Australian Open title. He was back on his court playing his tournament. Then he returned to his seat, put his head in his hands and sobbed uncontrollably.
Winning a title this big is an emotional thing, even if you have done it nine times before. But this was an uncharacteristic display of emotion from him. He wasn’t just shedding tears of joy. There were ones of anguish mixed in too. Novak wasn’t just weeping for himself either. He was shedding tears for those who have been, for the last two years, marginalized, vilified, shadowbanned, discredited, mocked, excluded, deplatformed and fired. He wept for those who have been denied the freedom to travel, socialize, attend school, attend concerts or attend weddings.
I could sense what Novak was going through. I admit that my own eyes were moist as I saw Novak’s chest heave with his head buried in a towel. I thought of all the times that I pleaded for people to just stop and listen. Novak didn’t get an apology but he walked away with the prize and the satisfaction of dismissing American Tommy Paul in the semifinals with Bill Gates in attendance.
Perhaps I am projecting too much, however Novak’s grim face during the trophy presentation told a story that he was unwilling to put into words on the podium. Mostly stoic, he only smiled and nodded in appreciation of Tsitsipas’ praise of his level of play. Tsitsipas took it one big step further than most saying, “He’s the greatest that’s ever held a tennis racquet”.
Who is the G.O.A.T.?
Tsitsipas was opening up a can of worms. Die hard tennis fans understand how lucky they are to be around to witness a player who is even in contention to be the GOAT. This last decade we have three players that are in that category.
Personally, I have always argued that Roger Federer is the greatest of all time. My argument was simple. At this level, the numbers don’t mean too much. Rafa, Roger and Novak have surpassed all their predecessors. There isn’t much between them, but it was only Roger that made the game look easy.
But the GOAT honorific demands more than the quality of play on the court. Another (often self-proclaimed) GOAT was Muhammad Ali. It wasn’t necessarily the way he moved, his confidence in the ring, his ability to improvise or his impressive record. It was his strength of character that put him a step ahead in my book.
Ali refused his induction into the US Army in 1967 on religious grounds. He paid a large price for refusing to participate in what he believed was an unjust war in Vietnam. He was stripped of his title and was banned from boxing for a total of three and a half years at what would have been the height of his career.
Novak has found himself in a different controversy that is no less contentious. Whether unwittingly or not, Novak Djokovic has become a spokesperson for the millions whose voices have been gagged by a merciless machine of censorship.
You're the GOAT in my book, Nole. Well played sir.
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Sports are romantic in many ways. Given all that has been revealed over the last year about COVID and vaccines, showing Novak was extremely reasonable in not being vaccinated, this is the icing on the cake. Wow at the amount of things that have come full circle in only 365 days.
Point of correction. It was not the Australian PM Scott Morrison that prevented Novak from playing but the premier of Victoria Dan Andrews. A dictator in sheep’s clothing who turned riot police on children and grandparents, or anyone else, who apposed his draconian rule.
The PM in Australia is pretty powerless when it comes to governing single states.