They’re Not Djoking
Novak Djokovic is worth $220 million dollars, but you might not think when you look at him. He stands at a respectable 6’2″ tall, speaks with only a slight accent to remind you of his Serbian nationality, and dresses almost normally. He is the No. 1 ranked tennis player in the world. And he is unvaccinated.
In spite of his mild appearance, Djokovic has succeeded in ruffling many feathers in the last two months, from Australian Immigration Minister Alex Hawke—who personally canceled Djokovic’s visa, preventing him from competing in the Australian Open—on down the line. All of this, of course, is over his refusal to take the only shot that has ever garnered a religious following. Prior to this week, despite a flurry of news coverage and insults, the man himself had yet to be asked, why?
As always, the New York Times’ diagnosis is the most amusing. The star has put himself at the center of the “most divisive debates of the pandemic: Individual versus community, science versus quackery.” (It takes a real quack to turn down a brand-new medication.) He “has done potentially irreparable harm to his own image” (the sort of line only a Times reporter could write seriously). And, best of all, his philanthropic work to make the wealthy-man’s sport more affordable for poorer players, his popularity in the locker room, and his ready praise of his two closest competitors, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, all prove, apparently, that he is trying too hard to be liked. If all else fails, dunk on his cool-factor, I suppose.
Yet even the Times can admit the athlete has always had a “keen interest in life beyond the baseline,” evidenced by his abnormally rigorous training regimen and diet, and stemming in part from childhood evenings spent sheltering from NATO bombings in what then was the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. But then, the reporter adds, he was always a little too into “spirituality,” and this is now leading him astray.
That “spirituality” is Orthodox Christianity, an identity that the athlete has claimed above any of his numerous tennis titles. While several athletes and celebrities profess faith of some sort (though perhaps fewer today than a decade ago), their actions often betray their lack of gravitas; not so much for Novak. Aside from his religious social media posts—an icon of St. Michael with a prayer, or a photo of him and his family celebrating Easter with the caption “Christ has risen from the dead”—Djokovic received the order of St. Sava from the Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church in 2011. This, the highest distinction in the Serbian Orthodox Church, was given to the tennis player in a large part due to his charitable contributions to the renovations of Serbian religious buildings. He responded thus: “This is the most important title of my life, because before being an athlete, I am an Orthodox Christian.”
This is the part of Novak Djokovic journalists cannot understand, and is what baffled BBC World media editor Amol Rajan earlier this week, when he sat down with the athlete to discuss Djokovic’s refusal to get the Covid-19 vaccine. After giving Djokovic a chance to explain his decision (the athlete cited his freedom to choose and the meticulous attention he pays to what he puts in his body, from supplements to water to medication), Rajan asked the question of stakes: “Ultimately, are you prepared to forego the chance to be the greatest player that ever picked up a racket, statistically, because you feel so strongly about this jab?”
Djokovic just gets this smile over his face, and nods, and says, “Yes. I do.”
If that means you’ll miss the French Open this year, Wimbledon this year, that’s a price you’re willing to pay? Rajan asks.
“Yes. That is the price that I’m willing to pay. Yes.”
At this point, Rajan just looks incredulous in his disapproval. Here is one of the most elite athletes in the world, with several years of his career still in front of him at age 34, willing to forego everything—perhaps most unbelievably, to the BBC journalist, Novak’s status in elite circles—for what the Times called quackery. “Why Novak? Why? Why?” he almost whispers.
“Because the principles of decision making on my body are more important than any title, or anything else.”
Lumped in with vague spirituality and quack science as though it were just another form of New Age hypnosis, Djokovic’s faithful convictions—whatever they are—are baffling to these people, an oddity, not least because he holds them in the face of serious loss. (If Gwyneth Paltrow’s “Goop” hacks led to her being denied entrance to the latest awards show, on the other hand, I’d bet a fair sum that she’d be the first to disavow them.) The idea of principles is foreign to the media establishment, but on Djokovic’s smiling face you can see the glimmer of inner strength he receives from standing on his own, and perhaps even the joy he takes in baffling the media, too. You can’t do “potentially irreparable harm” to a man’s image when your evaluation is not the most important in his eyes.
Meanwhile in Ottawa, thousands of truck drivers are lining the streets in protest of Covid-19 mandates. Canadian police began arresting protest leaders on Friday, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tries to flex his grip. The Canadian government says it will also freeze protestors’ bank accounts. Far more than Djokovic, these working-class Canadians stand to really lose everything—employment, livelihood, perhaps even their freedom, things of much more immediate weight than trophies and honor. And yet, the truckers remain.
What we’re seeing in the truckers and what we see in Djokovic is not anti-vaccine-ism. It is not an opposition to science, or to health, or even, though we may wish it, opposition to modernity for its own sake. It is anti-authoritarianism. It is the human spirit, in the little bubbles and pockets where it still remains, saying enough. Nothing—not my career, not my sponsorships, not my job, not my bank accounts—are worth living without my conscience.
Djokovic is a professional athlete of the highest caliber; the truckers are working class. Their lives and lifestyles could hardly be more different. And yet, they share the same resilience that the managerial class, which every day trades what loose values it might hold for advancement and approval, can’t wrap its head around. And that is galling them.