Djokovic courted controversy with comments he would resist being vaccinated against Covid-19, should tennis bosses ask players to do so before resuming the tour.
“Personally I am opposed to vaccination and I wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel,” Djokovic, 32, said in a chat with fellow Serbian athletes at the weekend.
In a follow-up statement on Tuesday, Djokovic left room for a potential shift in his position, but crucially defended his right to an opinion.
“I have expressed my views because I have the right to and I also feel responsible to highlight certain essential topics that are concerning tennis world…,” he said.
“My job requires lots of travel, some are saying that for us who travel, we would have to take the vaccine that is yet to be developed.
“I would like to repeat and point out that at this moment we do not have adequate information.
“We don’t know if there will be new measures, which of them will be taken, will we have a choice to decide on our own what to do or not with the vaccine.”
But by that time it was too late, the 17-time Grand Slam winner was facing a slamming of a very different kind.
Djokovic was rounded on by fans, the media and scientists alike, accused of being a straight-up “whackjob” by some, while a leading Serbian epidemiologist reprimanded him for spreading “misconceptions.”
There is no escaping that Djokovic’s views run counter to established scientific arguments. The ‘anti-vaxx’ movement has been directly blamed by the global health authorities for a recent resurgence in diseases like measles, diphtheria, tuberculosis, yellow fever and others.
Issuing a warning on the coronavirus, Dr Scott Ratzan, founder of the International Working Group (IWG) on Vaccination and Public Health Solutions, has stressed that a vaccine can only work if it is administered en masse.
In light of statements such as these, Djokovic’s views are indeed unsound. But to suggest that he is some kind of dangerous heretic is misplaced.
Anyone who has followed Djokovic’s career will know that while he is Orthodox by religious persuasion, he is distinctly unorthodox in many other areas.
He takes a holisitic approach to his health which advocates self-healing, shunning medicine where possible.
He is famously anti-surgery, revealing after he had an elbow operation in 2018 that he had “cried for two or three days afterwards” over the guilt he felt at somehow cheating his body.
He is a keen proponent of the benefits of yoga and meditation, and follows a strict plant-based, gluten-free diet which he has credited with revitalizing his career.
While most observers will say Djokovic lacks the natural on-court finesse of his two great rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, few would question that the Serb is unrivalled in the warrior stakes and sheer will to win. His stamina and intense devotion to maintaining relentless fitness levels are the stuff of legend.
It is perhaps this image problem – the perception of a belligerent, oddball star – that is working against Djokovic in the current case. People who know him or who have at least followed his rise to the pinnacle of his sport will not be all that surprised by his anti-vaxxer stance.
In any event, he is not leading mass anti-vaxxer marches or pontificating. He is not even calling on others to follow suit or questioning the right to vaccinations. He is not breaking the law.
He is simply emphasizing a personal choice over a vaccine which has not even been developed yet.
He is also a man who has donated more than $1 million worth of ventilators to help the fight against Covid-19 in Serbia.
So yes, disagree with Djokovic’s views all you like – and many right-minded people will do – but he has a right to express them.
By Liam Tyler