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To his critics, Novak Djokovic has been cavalier and reckless in the face of a deadly pandemic. But students of the tennis star’s game note that bending reality has been a secret to his success, until now.
The dizzying saga playing out in Australia over Djokovic’s refusal to get vaccinated against the coronavirus has cemented his image as the defiant figure in men’s tennis and made the world’s No. 1 player an unwitting new hero to the anti-vax movement. He has earned a new, and surely unwanted, nickname: No-vax.
In many ways, Djokovic has handled the pandemic like he would a tennis match, ignoring long odds and favoring alternative remedies over traditional medicine. His unconventional approaches to physical and mental fitness over the years have included consulting spiritual gurus, laying in hyperbaric chambers, visiting healing “pyramids” and working with a coach to develop reality-distortion skills.
But the current reality is that every player at the Australian Open, which starts Monday, needs a COVID-19 vaccine or a valid medical exemption to participate. The country's immigration minister canceled the unvaccinated Djokovic's visa on Friday, citing health and “good order” considerations.
Djokovic, who has appealed the decision, now finds himself facing likely deportation and at the center of a polarizing issue, with fans on either side of the vaccine debate.
For the top-ranked 34-year-old player from Serbia the timing could not be worse. This Australian Open was supposed to be the stage of a crowning achievement 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.
Fellow players and former coaches have urged Djokovic to acquiesce to a COVID-19 vaccine, saying tennis needs him on the court, not stoking political debates.
“All this could have been avoided, like we’ve all done, by getting vaccinated,” Spanish tennis star Garbiñe Muguruza said during a pre-tournament news conference in Melbourne on Saturday. “Everybody knew very clearly the rules. You just have to follow them, and that’s it. I don’t think it’s that difficult.”
Boris Becker a former top-ranked player who coached Djokovic from 2013-2016, said the same determination and stubbornness that fuels Djokovic’s strength on court can also be his weakness.
“He is a street fighter. That is his mentality, and it is what made him big and so successful. It is hard to change that,” Becker said in a recent interview with BBC Sport.
Djokovic has often attributed his toughness to growing up in war-ravaged Serbia in the 1990s. In Serbia, Djokovic is revered as a national hero, who overcame the odds in a country economically crippled by war with little tennis pedigree and few tennis courts to become the world’s No. 1 player.
As a child in Belgrade, Djokovic developed an early passion for tennis. He trained at a club that used an empty swimming pool as a makeshift tennis court. He has spoken of practice sessions getting cut short and running to bomb shelters, and huddling with his family for nights on end, as NATO jets targeted the Serbian capital in 1999 during the war over Kosovo.
Being exposed to emotional trauma so young gave him an early perspective on overcoming adversity, and crystalized his motivation. In Serbia, Djokovic is revered as a national hero who overcame the odds in the economically crippled country with few tennis courts to become the world’s No. 1 player.
“Most people don’t decide what they want from life when they’re 6 years old, but I had,” 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 reaching my goal.”
Djokovic won his first major tournament title at the Australian Open in 2008, but it was three years before he captured another.
The turning point of his career came in 2011, when Djokovic won 10 titles that included three Grand Slams and he achieved the No. 1 ranking in men’s tennis for the first time.
“It wasn’t a new racquet, a new workout, a new coach, or even a new serve that helped me. It was a new diet,” Djokovic wrote in his book, which explained how going gluten-free helped end his years of battling frequent fatigue during long matches, occasionally collapsing on court and having trouble breathing.
Players typically speak in awe of Djokovic's talent, his physical agility that can produce jaw-dropping performances and how he has mastered his mental game. “His best trait is his mind," American player Sam Querrey said last year about Djokovic.
In 2016, Djokovic teamed up with Pepe Imaz, a Spanish coach who had a modest tennis career and then opened a Marbella-based tennis academy with the motto, “Amor y Paz” (Love and Peace). It was after working with Imaz that Djokovic began his now-trademark 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 delved into meditation to help calm his mind and learned visualization techniques that he says allowed him to feel elevated 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, the people, the sounds, he said.
“What if for a second, instead of being part of the traffic, you are outside of the traffic on the hill, and you are observing the traffic?” Djokovic said.
He has applied those 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 against arguably the most-loved tennis player of all time.
“So when the crowd is chanting ‘Roger,’ I hear Novak,” he said. “I try to convince myself.”
Some of Djokovic's convictions have drawn negative headlines. In May 2020, he claimed during an Instagram live interview with self-styled wellness guru Chervin Jafarieh that people could use positive thinking to alter the composition of toxic food and polluted water.
Djokovic and his wife, Jelena, share New Age, esoteric beliefs and together have visited the Bosnian hill town of Visoko, where some believe that four hills shaped like pyramids offer healing powers, a claim disputed by scientists.
The tennis star's visits have spurred tourism to the site where Bosnian amateur archaeologist Semir Osmanagic opened a pyramid park that features a web of underground tunnels he claims emit a special energy.
Osmanagic, who has been photographed giving Djokovic personal tours of the park, supports the player’s anti-vaccine stance.
“He is an outstanding athlete who is very strict about what he eats, drinks and what he puts in his body, and he is standing up for freedom of choice,” Osmanagic told AP.
Unlike the heavy criticism Djokovic has faced internationally, he has widespread support in Serbia, where the revoking of his Australian visa is viewed as anti-Serb. Until the drama Down Under began, Djokovic had refused to say if he was vaccinated but it was clear that he was vaccine sceptic.
“I’m personally against vaccines and I wouldn’t want anyone to force me to take one so I can travel,” he said during an April 2020 online chat with other Serbian tennis players.
His vaccination status is not Djokovic’s first controversy, but the drawn-out saga at the Australian Open is raising questions about his legacy.
Djokovic faced criticism earlier in the pandemic for organizing a tennis tournament in the Balkans in June 2020, a time when professional tennis was shut down. Photos and videos emerged showing players ignoring social distancing and partying afterhours without masks. The tournament was abandoned after several players, including Djokovic and his wife tested positive for the coronavirus.
A few months later, he was kicked out of the U.S. Open after hitting a ball in frustration and it slammed into the throat of a line judge. It was unintentional, and Djokovic repeatedly apologized, but his action spotlighted a fiery temperament that he works hard to suppress.
“He’s already had enough moments and enough question marks to definitely tarnish his legacy,” ESPN tennis commentator Pam Shriver said in a recent conference call. “But certainly nothing will ever tarnish his record.”
Players at Melbourne Park considered 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 U.S. Open runner-up who is close to Djokovic. “Don’t question his legacy because of this.”
Defending Australian Open women's 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 might remember him 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-Herzegovina; John Pye in Melbourne and Howard Fendrich in Washington contributed to this report.