A weekly newsletter that often deconstructs but always explains the business of sport from India
Good Evening Dear Reader,
I hope you and your family are keeping safe and well. The third year of the pandemic has, to use a cricketing phrase, got off to a flyer. Lockdowns, containment zones, and weekend and night curfews are back.
Fortunately, we still have sports to distract us (famous last words!).
India and South Africa are in the midst of a gripping, series-deciding Test match in Cape Town (which might be over by the time you read this). The India Open badminton tournament is back after a gap of two years, even though many stars are missing. European football is trudging along, with a few matches being postponed here and there because of Covid outbreaks. And the Australian Open tennis tourney, known as the “Happy Slam”, kicks off next week.
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much joy around the Australian Open this year. Because of one stubborn super-athlete.
When I decided to write about the Novak Djokovic saga this week, I thought I’d go on a rant. But I figured you’ve probably had enough of that on Twitter already. So, I thought, let’s try and look at it from his perspective. Why would Djokovic do all this?
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not trying to defend him here. It’s an attempt to understand where he’s coming from and why he’s sabotaging all the goodwill he has generated over the last decade. Bear with me.
Understanding No-vax Djokovic
More than 15 years ago, in the final of the 2006 Croatia Open, a 19-year-old Novak Djokovic was on a roll. He had just beaten former world No 1 Carlos Moya in the semifinal and was on a nine-match winning streak. His opponent in the final was another promising young player, Stanislas Wawrinka, who was looking for his first ATP Tour title.
The match had all the makings of a great final. But it wasn’t to be. Halfway through the tiebreak in the opening set, Djokovic’s world fell apart.
“The stadium crowd was on my side; my team was cheering me on. And yet I couldn’t hear them. All I could hear was the roaring in my head. All I could feel was pain. Something was pinching my nose closed, bear-hugging my chest, pouring concrete into my legs.
I looked across at the net at my opponent…I looked into the stands, where my mother sat. And then, suddenly, gravity sucked me backward onto the red clay court, and I was looking up at the open Croatian sky, my chest heaving…No matter how hard I inhaled, the air would not come.
My father, Srdjan, ran out onto the court and, with a doctor, lifted me up by my arms and sat me down in my court-side chair. I looked up at my mother, sobbing in the stands, and I knew. This tournament was over. And maybe my life’s dream was over, too.
Serve to Win, by Novak Djokovic
This wasn’t the first time Djokovic had collapsed during a tournament, and it wouldn’t be the last. During the mid-to-late 2000s, he was often booed during tournaments and criticised in the media because of frequent timeouts. He was even ridiculed by his opponents. Here’s Andy Roddick in 2008:
“[He has] overcome two hurt ankles as well as a back [injury], and a rib and a cramp, bird flu, anthrax, SARS, common cough, and cold. He’s either quick to call the trainer or he’s the most courageous guy of all time. It’s up for you guys to decide.”
Djokovic tried everything during those years to fix himself: new workout regimes, new coaches, yoga, meditation, a nasal surgery… but nothing really worked. He did break into the top 10, but he could never really challenge the dominance of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Not until 2011.
That was the year Djokovic’s life changed. And it wasn’t a new workout, a new coach, or a new racquet that made the difference. It was a new diet. Djokovic learnt from a doctor that he was allergic to gluten, so he proceeded to eliminate it from his diet, along with sugar and dairy.
Going gluten-free wouldn’t have been easy, especially since his parents ran a pizza restaurant in Serbia. But it wasn’t long before he noticed a remarkable difference. “I had begun to eat the right foods for my body, in the way that my body demanded,” Djokovic wrote in his 2014 book. “After two weeks, I knew that my life had changed.”
Djokovic became leaner, fitter, and healthier than he had ever been, and there was no stopping him after that. In 2011, he won an incredible 10 titles, including three grand slams, and went on a 43-match winning run. He hasn’t stopped since.
Today, Djokovic is on par with Federer and Nadal in terms of grand slam titles won—20. And whether he gets to play at the Australian Open or not, it’s only a matter of time before he becomes the most successful men’s singles player of all time.
But Djokovic’s incredible health transformation a decade ago has also been the root cause of the controversy he finds himself in today. The Serb has become obsessed about his diet and his body, and has often proclaimed his right to “choose what’s best for my body.” Whether it’s food or a Covid vaccine.
Here’s what he said in November last year: “Doesn’t really matter whether it’s vaccination or anything else in life. You should have the freedom to choose, to decide what you want to do. In this particular case, what you want to put in your body.”
Djokovic is someone who “cried for two or three days” after undergoing an elbow surgery a few years ago, because of the guilt. “Every time I thought about what I did, I felt like I had failed myself,” he toldThe Telegraph in 2018. “I was trying to avoid getting on that table because I am not a fan of surgeries or medications. I am just trying to be as natural as possible, and I believe that our bodies are self-healing mechanisms. I don’t ever want to get myself in the situation where I have to have another surgery.”
So, now, you get where the vaccine-hesitancy comes from. And Djokovic is far from being the only top athlete with such views. Here are a few quotes from some of his other peers.
For me the vaccine has not been tested enough; it is new, it has some side-effects. I just see no reason for someone in my age group to need to be vaccinated. I think the concept was [for the vaccine] to be given to older people. For us young people, I think it is good to pass the virus, because we will build immunity.
I am doing what’s best for me. I know the consequences here and if it means that I’m judged and demonised for that, that’s just what it is.
It’s no surprise that professional athletes are extremely sensitive about what goes into their bodies, which are, after all, their livelihood. But sometimes, this obsession also leads them down rabbit holes like alternative medicine and, in some cases, even outright disinformation.
In 2020, Djokovic’s wife Jelena was widely criticised for spreading a conspiracy theory linking 5G technology to Covid. Novak Djokovic has called telekinesis and telepathy “gifts from this higher order, the source, the god, whatever, that allows us to understand the higher power and higher order in ourselves”.
Point being that there’s enough conflicting information out there about the Covid vaccine for Djokovic, a health-freak super-athlete, to be sceptical about whether it’s good for his body.
Does that mean it was okay for him to put the health of millions of people at risk by breaking isolation when he had Covid last month? Was it okay to not reveal he was Covid-positive when he did a newspaper interview and photoshoot, only to call it an “error of judgement”? Was it okay to blame a “human error” by his agent for the incorrect information in his Australia visa application?
Absolutely not. Imagine if you or I had done these things. Being holed up in an immigration hotel in Melbourne for four days would have been the least of our problems.
There’s a fine line between being principled and being entitled. And Djokovic’s actions over the last couple of weeks reek of entitlement.
Unfortunately, Djokovic is hardly the only person at fault for this entire debacle. There has been so much ambiguity in Australia’s rules on Covid vaccinations and medical exemptions, which is remarkable considering its reputation of having some of the strictest immigration and quarantine rules even before the pandemic.
Politics has had a major role to play too. Australia’s conservative prime minister Scott Morrison initially supported Djokovic’s vaccine-less entry into Australia, before changing his mind due to a public outcry. For context, Morrison was the country’s immigration minister earlier and he is known for taking a hard line on asylum seekers. And with elections around the corner, Morrison is facing a lot of pressure due to the way his administration has handled the Djokovic case.
The Djokovic saga has reinforced the impression that Morrison “hasn’t got his house in order” and it could cost him votes if it drags on, said John Warhurst, an emeritus professor at the Australian National University who has researched the nation’s politics for decades.
“It doesn’t look like someone who is in control of the situation,” Warhurst said of the prime minister. “It looks messy and I think that runs the risk of running against him. He’s now paddling hard to keep up.”
Djokovic Saga Damages Australian PM Morrison Before Election, Bloomberg
It’s a proper mess. And it’s far from being sorted, despite Australia taking the decision to cancel Djokovic’s visa for a second time earlier today. He could appeal the decision in court again. And at the time of publishing, his name is still in the tournament draw.
But the saddest part about this whole saga is that it has completely pushed a much more important story out of the news cycle. The Australian Open should not have been about Novak Djokovic’s vaccine stance. It should have been about Chinese player Peng Shuai. (ICYMI, here’s what I had written about it in November.)
More than two months after she almost disappeared from public life, apart from a few Chinese state-controlled appearances, we still don’t know whether she’s safe and able to exercise her own free will.
But maybe it isn’t too late. Maybe Naomi Osaka and other players who had voiced their concerns about her will bring #WhereIsPengShuai back.
One can only hope.
🏏🇮🇳🇨🇳 Goodbye Vivo; Tata IPL. The Tata group has replaced Chinese smartphone brand Vivo as the title sponsor of the Indian Premier League (IPL) for the 2022 and 2023 seasons. Tata is likely to pay Rs 300 crore (~US$40 million) per year for the rights, as against the Rs 440 crore (~US$60 million) per year deal signed by Vivo in 2018. The Chinese company will have to pay the balance amount after pulling out of the deal for the second time since 2020. [The Economic Times]
⛳️📺 After the spectacular success of Formula 1: Drive to Survive, Netflix has landed a deal to make a similar behind-the-scenes show on golf’s PGA Tour. The show will be produced by London-based Box to Box Films, which is behind Drive to Survive and the popular Explained series on Netflix. Filming is already underway. [Deadline]
🍎⚾️ Apple could finally make its sports streaming debut, with the tech giant reportedly having held substantial talks with the United States’ Major League Baseball. If the deal goes through, Apple is likely to get weekday MLB games, which ESPN recently relinquished. [New York Post]
🏏🇵🇰🇮🇳🇦🇺🏴 Pakistan Cricket Board chairman Ramiz Raja has proposed organising a quadrangular annual Twenty20 series featuring Pakistan, India, Australia, and England. 👀 Such a plan was first proposed by the Board of Control for Cricket in India, featuring India, England, Australia and a fourth team that would change every year. [The New Indian Express]
Tweet/video of the week
There have been plenty of hot takes, rants, and jokes about the Djokovic saga on Twitter. But this one made me laugh the most.
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