There’s an intangible and inexplicable bond between Novak Djokovic and controversies. The same man who shares his umbrella with a ball kid on court while waiting for rain to ease also often riles up spectators with his fury and antics. The same man who is now an epitome of fitness in modern sport was often accused of exaggerating his injuries during matches earlier. The same man who gestures to the crowd in all four directions of the court with hands on his heart after winning a match is also often in turn grappling for a place in their heart.
Yet, none of it seems to dilute the resoluteness of the 20-time Grand Slam champion operating within his own bubble; on the contrary, the world No. 1 thrives on the anti-hero perception, the I-vs-world attitude.
This time, though, that appears to be the case quite literally.
The latest fiasco surrounding Djokovic and his participation for the 2022 Australian Open isn’t about his unconventional beliefs and methods to attain unconceivable success, or about accidentally hitting a line judge with a ball and being defaulted from a Slam, or about his continued—and, at times, failing—endeavour to match the fan-following of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal apart from their Slam tally. It is about Djokovic’s actions as a global sporting superstar watched and followed by millions of people that have the potential to further stain his far-from-spotless image among the masses.
“Even though he has the mental experience and toughness, this has the potential to be at a level, maybe, that we have not seen in tennis,” Craig O’Shannessy, who has worked with Djokovic as a strategy analyst, told Reuters.
The Serbian had made his vaccine scepticism well known from the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, although he chose to whip up an air of secrecy around whether or not he had been jabbed until his trip to Australia earlier this month.
Of course, Djokovic has the liberty to be unvaccinated. However, it’s the optics around that personal choice that has invited ire from not just his colleagues, pundits, politicians but the public at large. For them, Djokovic is seen as being uncompromising about not getting the jab but adamant about playing a Slam that mandates it in a country where 92.5% of people above 16 are double vaccinated after going through one of the sternest lockdowns. It didn’t help perceptions that Djokovic announced on social media that he had received medical exemption to play the Australian Open where 97 out of the top 100 male players have complied with the vaccination rules. Or that he did a photoshoot and interview despite being aware of his Covid positive result last month and passing it off as an error of judgement; giving wrong information on the travel declaration form about his whereabouts before departing for Australia and blaming it on a human error from his support team.
Even for someone who isn’t quite looked upon as the poster boy among sporting role models, this cannot be a good look.
“Novak’s stance of being anti-vaccines in the first place surely hasn’t gone down well with fans and people at large. When influential sportspersons who are icons and achievers take a strong stance against what governments all over the world are propagating, it adds to the whole confusion of being nonconformist,” said Tuhin Mishra, managing director and co-founder of Baseline Ventures that manages some of the top Indian sports stars including PV Sindhu, Smriti Mandhana and Amit Panghal, among others.
Sure, not all the blame for the raging saga falls on Djokovic’ court. He pounced on the exemption window that the Australian Open organisers had opened for him, tried to enter Australia believing he had checked every box he was told about and bore the brunt of the miscommunication between the organisers, state and federal government that resulted in his visa being revoked in the first place.
The issue also quickly lit a political spark amid the impending elections in Australia this year, with Serbia’s prime minister and president too getting involved in backing Djokovic. But Djokovic has only added to the fire by opting to stick his ground and fight every step legally even as the Australian public would rather see him leave their country—an online poll by the News Corp media group said 83% favoured Djokovic’s deportation—whereas a vast majority of Serbians hailed their national icon for not bowing down.
That is also where, legendary tennis player Martina Navratilova felt, Djokovic could have done better and “sucked it up” and gone home instead of being the face of confrontation.
“Sometimes you need to do the right things and calm things down rather than making it worse. Right now, Novak is very divisive,” Navratilova said in Australia’s TV show Sunrise. “Serbian people I’m sure 95% are in favour of Novak but the rest of the world is more like 95% the other way.”
“I have defended him over the years many, many times, and I thought it wasn’t a fair fight when it came to his comparisons with Rafa and Roger. He was always the visiting team. But regardless of that, I defended Novak… At the same time, when you want to be a leader in the sport, there is a responsibility that comes with that. You are a role model for kids—whether you want to be or not,” the 18-time Grand Slam champion added.
Djokovic is also the face of a sizeable variety of reputed brands. The 34-year-old was fourth in the Forbes’ 2021 list of highest-paid tennis players, his total earnings of $38 million only short of Roger Federer, Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams. Forbes has valued Djokovic’s endorsements to be worth $30 million, with sponsors comprising big brands in Asics, Head, Hublot, Lacoste, Lemero, NetJets, Peugeot, Raiffeisen Bank International, Ultimate Software Group, etc.
As of now in this ever-developing Djoker drama, his sponsors have not shown any signs of loosening ties. “As Novak Djokovic’s sponsor, we are closely observing the current situation,” a report in the Associated Press quoted the Vienna-based Raiffeisen Bank as saying. The Serb signed up as its brand ambassador last year.
It may not be panic stations yet for Brand Novak, but Marcel Knobil, a top UK-based brand consultant, felt concerns would start to kick in for sponsors if Djokovic’s image as one of the most prominent anti-vaxxers continues to mount in the days and months to follow. “The big concern for various sponsors will be if he becomes perceived as a major anti-vaccination advocate and the anti-vax poster boy,” Knobil told Telegraph Sport.
Mishra reckoned that new brands with footprints across the world would be forced think hard before signing him up Djokovic. “New brands would surely look closely at what stance he has taken. It won’t be easy for brands that have global footprints to associate with him, unless he changes his stance,” he said.