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The Djokovic saga and misplaced moral judgement

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When I was 18, my older sister dated a local tennis pro. One afternoon, he came to our Genova home with a silver trophy raving about a 16-year-old prodigy he’d played at the tournament. “Simon,” he said with eyes as wide as tennis balls, “you cannot imagine how powerful he is, like a bull.”

Of course, he was talking about our beloved Rafael Nadal. Ever since, I’ve supported Rafa in every tournament, spotted him next to the Cathedral, and even had a (very) brief chat during the filming of a tv commercial. Thanks to that local pride and connection, I’ve always wanted him to be the last man standing in the GOAT debate between Roger Federer and the now more infamous than ever Novak Djokovic.

But if I take my emotion out of the equation, I know that Novak Djokovic is top dog. Perhaps you disagree that he deserves GOAT status but the scales of tennis glory clearly tip in his favour. He has more head to head wins against both Nadal and Federer. Combine that with the record 357 weeks at the top of the ATP rankings and his record-equalling tally of 20 Slams, then it’s hard to argue otherwise. After Novak’s seventh return to world number one, even tennis legend Pete Sampras hailed him as the greatest of all time. Game. Set. And match.

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And yet, if you’re a die-hard Federer or Nadal fan, your heart says otherwise. We cling to ethereal qualities like Nadal’s grit and Federer’s elegance. Or we chastise Djokovic for his supposed arrogance or lack of class and then dangle the GOAT status just out of his reach. And that’s the point of this article: we don’t judge on reason, but emotion. And, like any bias, Novak’s vaccine status has created an emotional response from those following the saga, blinded our judgement, and led many to not only applaud his absence in Melbourne but to smear his character, too.

First, let’s try to reason: why isn’t Novak currently adding to his 82 wins at the Australian Open? The fact that he was even in Australia highlights the lack of clarity between the national government, immigration and the Queensland Government, where the tournament is held. As third seed Alexander Zverez pointed out in a recent interview, ‘things should have been clearer.’ If the national government weren’t going to let him in, then why in one of McEnroe’s expletives did the Victorian Government grant him a travel VISA in the first place?

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Tennis Australia has defended its actions by saying that regulations are “blurry” in a changing political landscape. If there’s nuance in the immigration guidelines, his deportation seems harsh. But many dismiss this vagueness argument. Instead, they argue Tennis Australia wriggled around immigration laws for a superstar of the tournament.

Whilst that’s probably true, they might also have a soft spot for Novak on account of his many philanthropic contributions. He once donated a million dollars to the Australian Open’s Junior Development programme. He also donated money to fight the devastating forest fires on Kangaroo Island. As a Serb, Djokovic has been good to Australia. Perhaps the tennis board appreciated more than his world number one status and television ratings.

Regardless, last Friday, Australian immigration minister Alex Hawke cancelled his VISA, stating that Djokovic’s presence in Australia might risk “civil unrest” as he is a “talisman of anti-vaccination sentiment”.

This bizarre ruling sent Novak into one of Australias much-maligned quarantine hotels. Was he mistreated? Australia is infamous for its inhumane handling of asylum seekers on Nauru Island. Then again, a quarantine hotel can’t have been that bad for the boy who grew up during the Yugoslav Wars. As the tennis great Boris Becker astutely noted, “(Novak) was in the bunker at the age of ten when bombers flew over his city. A quarantine hotel is harmless.”

After a few reviews of a botched travel application and a misleading medical exemption, his appeal to reinstate his VISA failed. Djokovic flew swiftly home to a hero’s welcome in Belgrade. Based on Australia’s immigration laws, his dismissal was probably the right decision. He didn’t fulfil travel requirements, and their government is aware of the furore if there is one rule for the rich and famous and another set of rules for its public (see Boris Johnson). Yes, he had to be deported.

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Laws be as they may, certain media outlets might have fooled you into thinking Australians were happy to see him leave. Many were. But according to Australian immigration lawyer John Findley, “Djokovic is a polarising influence in Australia”. And if you’re paying attention, you’ll see that his vaccination stance makes him a polarising figure the world over.

What concerns me isn’t his absence at the tournament but those who applaud it, as if it’s something he deserves. I agree that the health of the nation comes before any sport. But consider this: the Centre for Disease Control first gave the green light on COVID vaccines in December 2020.

Djokovic has played in all four Grand Slams since then. He won two of those, including the Australian Open, and no one had a problem. Consider too, that the pandemic is moving into an endemic phase and the vaccine mandate seems all the more out of date.

So why the sudden abuse towards the greatest player of all time? He’s not promoting terrorism. Nor is there any evidence that he tried to incite an anti-vaccine insurrection. Instead, this Djokovic saga highlights a culture war in Australia as a microcosm of feelings echoed in the rest of the western world. And like all wars, it’s waged on emotion rather than reason.

We’ve seen it before. After the planes toppled the Twin Towers during 9/11, researchers at San Francisco University examined how the public’s negative emotions supported President Bush’s decision to deploy troops in the Middle East. They concluded that Americans didn’t support Bush’s invasion of Iraq based on scant supporting evidence but, instead, on emotions of anger, frustration and fear. As the Scottish Philosopher David Hume said way back in the 18th century, “moral judgements are not conclusions of reason”.

Likewise, it’s hard to dissociate our moral judgement of Djokovic from bias. By now, we’re all either vaccinated for COVID-19 or not. The fence between the two camps is built so high that there’s no more sitting on it. Did we all decide based on science, data, and reason? Like Hume, I know that we’re first and foremost emotional social beings; our decisions are actually swayed by social inconvenience, government rules, cultural values, hunches, and the advice or just the observed practices of others.

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Not many of us had been vaccinated during Djokovic’s last Australian Open a year ago. Many were still vaccine-hesitant. But slowly, through social and political pressure, those numbers have dwindled. Now, most of us are vaccinated, and our emotional mammalian limbic system puts Djokovic on the other side of the tribal fence.

“He’s not one of us,” says our amygdala (a small brain structure that governs emotions), and we rejoice in his undoing. Novak isn’t the victim of his arrogance but of our fickle emotions, quickly able to view the world through the lens of a new ‘normality’.

In short, Djokovic isn’t right for not wanting to get vaccinated. But he isn’t wrong either. As true as that statement may be, what’s even truer is that he has dedicated his entire life to the sport: thousands of early mornings running monotonous drills, perfecting his serve, forehand and volley. Unless Roger or Rafa are reading this, then none of us has a clue of how very “disappointing” it is for him to miss out on this tournament.

But if his absence in Melbourne means that he never eclipses Nadal or Federer’s Grand Slam haul, then, at least he stuck by his principles. Instead of taking a probably harmless vaccine and playing in the tournament, as so many players have, Djokovic refused to accept manipulation and coercion and stood by his principle of bodily autonomy. For that, I respect him.

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