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Understandings of choice form the heart of lingering Djokovic mystery

By Sharada Iyer, Tennis With An Accent

Two months into the 2022 season, the tennis world is finally getting a glimpse of Novak Djokovic, the men’s World No. 1, in live competition at the Dubai Open. Meanwhile, the clamour and confusion about his remarks and beliefs linger in the background.

A notable new development in this multifaceted story is Djokovic’s recent interview with the BBC in which he reiterated what he has been saying during the pandemic: He wasn’t against vaccination per se, but wanted to be able to exercise the freedom of choice about what he wanted to put into his body, much as he supported others’ freedom to do the same. Emphasising this stance of his, Djokovic also went on to add – stunning everyone, albeit not into silence – about how he would skip the upcoming majors, beginning with the French Open, rather than getting vaccinated and playing them.

In the aftermath of the saga of what happened to him in Australia to start the year, Djokovic’s remarks are reassuring in that the audience won’t get to see a redux of a similar incident playing out in Paris or in London this year. Moreover, given that tennis is an individual sport where individual decisions count, Djokovic’s individual choice on the matter of personal mandates seems fair, but it’s also where things get murkier.

In his BBC interview, Djokovic stoically observed, “I understand that globally everyone is trying to put a big effort into handling this virus. And vaccination is probably the biggest effort. That was maybe probably why the half of the planet was vaccinated.”

The statement in itself is interesting; it’s revealing about how he views his choices even when they go up against the bigger picture, i.e., personal choices versus the world’s needs.

For one, Djokovic’s comment makes it clear that he understands where the world is with respect to protecting itself from a continuously-mutating virus, and that he appreciates and is supportive of all the work that’s gone into putting into place necessary safety checks. Yet, seemingly, he is also not above disassociating himself from this new reality if not being outright dismissive about it.

Thus, Djokovic the individual tennis player is ostensibly oblivious to the repercussions his individual choices could have on the health and functioning of others. Case in point: his choice to conduct an interview with L’Equipe after getting to know the result of his COVID-19 test.

There again, when the information first came to light, Djokovic said he had agreed to go ahead with the interview because of respect for the journalist, who is a veritable senior in the profession. Then, justifying his decision-making, Djokovic added, “but (I) did ensure I socially distanced and wore a mask except when my photograph was being taken.”

Be it then or now, Djokovic’s justification of his choices didn’t play well in the real world where people have had to – and still – quarantine themselves even for symptoms resembling the common cold, until a COVID test confirms they aren’t carriers of the virus. While the man himself seemed to have missed the import of his actions all this while, it wasn’t until his recent interview with a Serbian broadcaster, a couple of days following his conversation with the BBC, that he displayed the contriteness that should have been manifested back then.

“It was a mistake… I admit that it was selfish what I’ve done, it was a mistake that I own. I understand that not all people will forgive me and I understand the critics,” Djokovic said.

Understanding this, what Djokovic still doesn’t seem to have perceived is as follows: The criticism that came his way wasn’t just because he did the interview, but also because he did so while ignoring the fundamental principle he had insisted on all the while: respecting choices. Had he admitted to the journalist and the outlet that he was an active carrier of the Coronavirus, it’s hard to dispute that the interview would have been conducted differently, if it wasn’t cancelled outright.

In this context, it’s apt to revisit what the 20-time major champion said while speaking to the Serbian channel regarding transparency and him repeatedly striving to be so.

“I value honesty, it is something I’ve grown up with,” Djokovic observed, responding to a question about his sharing of the update on receiving a medical exemption to play the 2022 Australian Open on social media. “I was aware that my name was mentioned in the media in the two or three months prior to that. Based on the values that I hold dearly in life, I wanted to be transparent. I don’t regret it. I don’t know if things would have been different if I hadn’t posted that. I never thought that I would have to talk about my medical records in order to play tennis.”

That last sentence from Djokovic, then, sums up the dichotomy that separates the new-world realism of today from the escapism his choices constitute. Likewise, it also feels unreal that he finds it odd to be required to share certain portions of his medical history to continue with his profession at a time that the rest of the world does so, without complaining, merely in order to venture out of their homes without any real choice in the first place.

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