There is an elusive and inexplicable link between Novak Djokovic and controversy. The same man who shares his umbrella with a ball boy on the field while he waits for it to rain also often infuriates the onlookers and antics. The same man who is now a paragon of fitness in modern sport has previously been accused of exaggerating his injuries during competitions. The same man who, after winning a match, gesturing hands-on to the crowd in all four directions of the field also often struggles for a place in their hearts.
Yet nothing seems to weaken the determination of the 20-time Grand Slam champion who operates in his own bubble; on the contrary, the world No. 1 thrives on the anti-hero perception, the me-versus-world attitude.
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This time, however, that seems to be literally the case.
The latest fiasco surrounding Djokovic and his entry into the 2022 Australian Open is not about his unconventional beliefs and methods for achieving unimaginable success, or about accidentally hitting a linesman with a ball and failing a Slam, or about are ongoing — and, sometimes failing, trying to emulate the fans of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, aside from their Slam tally. It is about Djokovic’s actions as a global sports superstar who was watched and followed by millions of people who have the potential to further tarnish his far from spotless image with the masses.
“Even though he has the mental experience and strength, this has the potential to maybe reach a level we haven’t seen in tennis before,” Craig O’Shannessy, who worked with Djokovic as a strategy analyst, told Reuters.
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The Serb had made his skepticism about vaccines well known from the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, although he chose to stir an air of secrecy about whether or not he had been stung until his trip to Australia earlier this month. .
Of course Djokovic has the freedom not to be vaccinated. However, it is the view of that personal choice that has provoked the ire of not only his colleagues, experts, politicians, but the general public. To them, Djokovic is seen as uncompromising about not getting the jab but adamant about playing a Slam that makes it mandatory in a country where 92.5% of people over 16 have been double vaccinated after being shot by one of the strictest lockdowns have passed. It didn’t help the perception that Djokovic announced on social media that he had been given a medical exemption to play the Australian Open, where 97 of the top 100 male players have adhered to vaccination rules. Or that he did a photoshoot and interview despite knowing about his Covid positive result last month and passing it on as an error of judgment; giving wrong information on the travel declaration form about his whereabouts before leaving for Australia and blaming it for human error on the part of his support team.
Even for someone who isn’t really seen as the poster boy among sporting role models, this can’t be a good look.
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“Novak’s attitude to be anti-vaccine first and foremost has certainly not gone down well with fans and people in general. When influential athletes who are icons and achievers take a strong stance against what governments around the world propagate, it adds to the whole confusion of being maverick,” said Tuhin Mishra, CEO and co-founder of Baseline Ventures, which includes some of the top Indian sports stars, including PV Sindhu, Smriti Mandhana and Amit Panghal, among others.
Of course, not all the blame for the raging saga falls on Djokovic’s court. He threw himself at the waiver window opened for him by the organizers of the Australian Open, attempted to enter Australia assuming he had ticked every box he was told, and suffered the brunt of the miscommunication between the organisers, the state and the federal government that resulted in his visa being revoked in the first place.
The issue also quickly created a political spark during the approaching elections in Australia this year, which also saw the Serbian prime minister and president become involved in backing Djokovic. But Djokovic has only added to the fire by choosing to stand his ground and fight every step legally, even though the Australian public would rather see him leave their country – an online poll by media group News Corp said 83% favored the expulsion of Djokovic – while a vast majority of Serbs praised their national icon for not bowing.
That’s also true, said legendary tennis star Martina Navratilova, Djokovic could have done better and “suck it up” and go home instead of being the face of the showdown.
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“Sometimes you have to do the right things and calm things down instead of making it worse. At the moment Novak is very divided,” Navratilova told the Australian TV show Sunrise. “Serbs, I’m sure 95% is for Novak, but the rest of the world is more like 95% the other way around.”
“I’ve defended him many, many times over the years and I didn’t think it was a fair fight when it came to his comparisons to Rafa and Roger. He was always the visiting team. But anyway, I defended Novak…At the same time “If you want to be a leader in the sport, there comes a responsibility. You are a role model for children whether you want to or not,” added the 18-time Grand Slam champion.
Djokovic is also the face of many renowned brands. The 34-year-old placed fourth in Forbes’ list of highest-paid tennis players in 2021, his total earnings of $38 million just less than Roger Federer, Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams. Forbes has valued Djokovic’s notes at $30 million, with sponsors comprising major brands in Asics, Head, Hublot, Lacoste, Lemero, NetJets, Peugeot, Raiffeisen Bank International, Ultimate Software Group, etc.
As of now, in this ever-evolving Djoker drama, his sponsors have shown no signs of easing ties. “As a sponsor of Novak Djokovic, we are closely monitoring the current situation,” a report in the Associated Press quoted Vienna-based Raiffeisen Bank as saying. The Serb signed up as a brand ambassador last year.
It may not be a panic station for Brand Novak just yet, but Marcel Knobil, a top brand consultant from the UK, felt the sponsors would start to worry if Djokovic’s image as one of the most prominent anti-vaxxers in the days continues to rise. and the months that follow. “The big concern for several sponsors will be whether he is seen as a strong supporter of anti-vaccination and the anti-vax poster boy,” Knobil told Telegraph Sport.
Mishra assumed that new brands with footprints around the world would be forced to think twice before signing Djokovic. “New brands would certainly look closely at his stance. It won’t be easy for brands with a global presence to associate with him unless he changes their stance,” he said.