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Anti-vaxxer and on-court diva: is Novak Djokovic still a role model?

By Katherine Brown, MA Chinese Studies

Novak Djokovic landed himself in hot water at the 2020 US Open earlier this year, after accidentally hitting a line judge in a fit of rage with a tennis ball. The furious reaction from the six-time world champion arose after he had lost a point to opponent Pablo Carreño Busta. Djokovic was then disqualified and made to relinquish the $250,000 would-be earnings that is awarded to players who reach the quarter finals. 

Most tennis commentators, including former British number one Tim Henman, were in unanimous agreement that the decision to disqualify Djokovic from the tournament was the right one rather than a call to reprieve.  Djokovic later issued a statement of regret on Instagram, but was earlier reported to have argued with the umpire to continue the match. According to New York Times tennis writer, Ben Rothenberg, Djokovic is claimed to have said ‘She doesn’t have to go to the hospital for this. You’re going to choose a default in this situation? My career, grand slam, centre stage?’. Perhaps even more shocking than the act of aggression itself was the torrent of death threats and abuse that the line judge received from Djokovic’s fans, whom he had to ask to lay off. But by flouting responsibility and refusing to apologise appropriately, his role model status is certainly questionable. 

The men’s tennis world number one is no stranger to controversy; earlier this year, the star, who has been extremely vocal about his anti-vaccination stance, was also caught on camera partying in a packed Serbian nightclub during lockdown. He later became one of four tennis players who tested positive for COVID-19. As the world’s top ranked tennis player, and a role model for younger contestants, it is questionable whether Djokovic’s behaviour is indicative of his ‘poor judgement’, or a byproduct of sheer arrogance and entitlement. 

Accidental or not, Djokovic’s actions and subsequent response were problematic. He poses a stark contrast to rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who both portray a gentlemanly and respectful demeanour, making them fan favourites internationally. Djokovic, however, remains a divisive figure. This was highlighted when Nick Kyrgios, another tennis player known for his on-court antics, made a tongue-in-cheek jibe at Djokovic about how he was supposedly relieved easily. So far, Djokovic has managed to overcome any controversy he has faced. He will go down in history as one of the most consistently talented players of all time, but his irresponsible attitude especially towards vaccination, in the time of COVID, is concerning. Considering Djokovic’s influence and platform as a celebrity and sports personality, it is possible to ask if sports federations can intervene in regulating what players can and cannot say off the court, especially if it is a potential threat to the public. But it is difficult to know how many people are going to refuse the coronavirus vaccine, when it is ready, simply because of what a tennis player has said. 

“Returning to live sports after a global pandemic no doubt comes with health and safety precautions, but correcting on-court violence shouldn’t be one of them.”

Maintaining a calm demeanour and professional sportsmanship on the court is a huge responsibility, especially for those at the top of the field. Failing to live up to the expectations of the public and the sporting world can damage their image – and therefore career, irreparably. Returning to live sports after a global pandemic no doubt comes with health and safety precautions, but correcting on-court violence should not be one of them. 

Photo Caption: Djokovic tends to the line judge after hitting her in the throat. Credit: EPA.

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