Novak Djokovic threatens to ruin Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer hopes at Australian Open
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Novak Djokovic has been granted the chance to break his tie with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and win a male record 21st Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open.
But if the Serb triumphs for a 10th time at Melbourne Park on January 30, will he be hailed as the greatest male player of all time? Or will he forever be remembered as a vaccine-dodger who played by his own rules against the spirit of Australian laws?
His performances on and off the Rod Laver Arena over the next month will go a long way to defining his place in tennis history.
Speaking openly about the reason for his medical exemption – such as contracting Covid within the last six months – would take the heat out of an issue raging Down Under like a summer bushfire.
Refusing to explain in his first press conference in Australia will not see the controversy go away. The ball is in his court.
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Djokovic, a believer in alternative medicine, has never been far from the headlines throughout the pandemic.
Back in April 2020, during a Facebook Live discussion with fellow Serbian athletes, he said: “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.”
In an Instagram Live chat with Chervin Jafarieh the following month, the pair discussed how the “power of prayer” could make “toxic” food and water more healthy.
“Because water reacts and scientists have proven that, that molecules in the water react to our emotions, to what is being said,” Djokovic claimed.
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Then his disastrous Adria Tour event in June 2020 was called off when Djokovic, his wife Jelena and three other players tested positive. There had been no social distancing during the exhibition tournament – and players were photographed dancing topless at a Belgrade disco.
After initial apologies, Djokovic said in August 2020: “If I had the chance to do the Adria Tour again, I would do it again. It’s like a witch hunt.”
This sense of persecution, especially by the Western media, is a common theme. His mother Dijana claimed: “It is horrible, too horrible, what they write but we are used to it.” And his father Srdjan said in November it was “blackmail” that players had to reveal their vaccination status.
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His wife Jelena’s Instagram account had a “false information” tag added to a post after she shared a conspiracy video about 5G causing coronavirus. Andy Murray has taken to social media to announce his injections and thank NHS staff.
Djokovic, a hero in his homeland, is certainly different. But he has also striven for worldwide acclaim to match the love given to Federer and Nadal in a golden age of tennis.
And the irony of the Australian Open rumpus follows his tears during the US Open final for the warm support during the final defeat which ended his brave bid to win a calendar Grand Slam. That goodwill will be tested in Melbourne, the most locked-down city in the world.
With the most Masters titles and winning records against Federer and Nadal, the stats say Djokovic is already the GOAT. History will be another judge.
In 1967, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his world heavyweight title after refusing to fight in Vietnam. In 2022, Novak Djokovic will play the Australian Open on a medical exemption.
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