Sport

Novak Djokovic and trying to understand the divisive tennis-Jesus

‘A global shift will occur when each individual finds the courage to awaken from the mass amnesia.” Yes, I read the personal manifesto of Novak Djokovic’s wellness guru so you don’t have to.

It is no secret that the world’s No 1 celebrity Covid outlaw, currently awaiting his fate in an agreeably everyday Melbourne hotel, is a long-term student of somebody called Chervin Jafarieh, described, on his own website, as “one of the most respected and influential health experts in the world”. Jafarieh is a familiar type, the magnetic personality, the handsome and piercing spirit guide who accepts all major credit cards and looks like he might smell of musk and whale-song and concentrated human-power while he stands slightly too close to you in the lift.

The manifesto is lush and persuasive and, frankly, bang on about lots of stuff. Novak’s guy is worried about pollution and climate change, also “militarism, urbanization, carbon combustion, mining of metals and toxic materials, manufacturing of chemicals and biological poisons”. Mainly he’s obsessed with intake and the body, and this seems to be the thing about Djokovic’s vaccine hesitancy, at least in public. Djokovic has staged his own super-spreader event, has provided an anti-science role model, but he has also bought ventilators for hospitals, set up a Covid fund and done generous, charitable, believer-type things.

This is not alien lizard stuff. It’s not the great human cull or the fake-a-demic. Instead the resistance seems to come from somewhere else, from sunlit pagodas where magnetic people in crisp linen robes talk about their energy, their aura, their yacht, from a place of mind power and blood purity, of bamboo silica supplements and chocolate-flavoured Organic Longevity Mushrooms.

For Djokovic physical control is a kind of religion in itself, the superpower that transformed him into a miracle of sporting middle age, a marvel of twang and flex and tensile energy. This is an all-time athlete who has kicked gluten, dairy, sugar and meat, who starts the day with celery juice and yoga before dawn, who believes it is us, those still slaughtering animals, eating chemicals, pumping out the carbon, who are, frankly, the problem, who says things like “our entire body is a harmonic system that is perfectly managing all its metabolic functions”.

So, is he going to have that man-made chemical injected into his bicep, the one he uses to dole out his hyper-organic uber tennis? The same substance unhealthy, McNugget-quaffing people like me and you keep telling him is species-duty? No. No he’s not.

And yes it’s annoying and weird and based on a spectrum of Übermensch pseudo-science. But being weird isn’t, as yet, a crime, just as not taking a vaccine isn’t a crime, even when you combine it with the maddening overclass arrogance of trying to enter Australia under a medical exemption, rather than just staying away out of basic good manners. And really, why even go into all this? Why try to humanise and understand the world’s current most divisive athlete?

Novak Djokovic
‘For Novak Djokovic physical control is a kind of religion in itself, the superpower that transformed him into a miracle of sporting middle age, a marvel of twang and flex and tensile energy.’ Photograph: Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images

Firstly, because it’s better than the default options of blanket condemnatory rage or unquestioning hero-worship. And also because there are two points that can easily get lost. The first is that sport is being used as an amplifier here, the stage for an ugly and manipulative piece of political theatre.

How dumb is Novak Djokovic? Dumb enough to allow himself to be used as a pawn by Scott Morrison, an organically reared dead cat hurled on to the table as a welcome election-year distraction. Morrison offered a revealing aside during a TV interview this week. Yes, the Aussie PM confirmed, chuckling quietly, his border force does operate on intelligence, hunches and previous public statements. And so, this is, by extension, a showy piece of opportunism, a staged humiliation. Morrison has been under pressure over fragile administration, an absence of testing kits, a wildfire of new Covid cases. How to appear both strong and big on detail at a single stroke? Enter, yogurt boy.

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And all the while positions are entrenched. Nobody learns or changes their mind. Why am I even trying to explain and humanise the anti-vaccine creed of the world’s most-reviled refusenik? I guess because the most radical thing you can currently do is try to see both sides. Personally I’m a vaccine ultra. Hook me up baby. Protect me and my immediate contacts with the best available science. I’ll swallow it and (probably) fail to run a mile.

But it is also vital to understand that some might have another view, that being wary about what you put into your body is not beyond comprehension. Sports people live strange cosseted lives. But in the UK, at least, the low take-up of Premier League footballers also reflects precisely the distrust and vulnerability to “alternative truths” of all people their age, particularly those from economically and socially disadvantaged groups. Coercion and scolding, going on about ignorant millionaires: this gets us nowhere.

This is the most practical point. Sport really does need clarity and forward planning or it will continue to magnify these problems, to be weaponised by those with agenda. Most obviously all sporting bodies need to resist the urge to meddle and lobby on the issue of who gets to enter a particular country.

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This applies to various upcoming events, from the French Open, which offers the chance for a reprise of the current theatre, to Chelsea’s trip to Lille in the Champions League. Beyond that we have the tricky prospect of the 2022 Fifa World Cup. The latest word, not yet publicly confirmed, is that unvaccinated players will receive an exemption to the rules in Qatar, which demands the jab.

Perhaps all involved are hoping this will simply go away. The lessons of Melbourne and the trials of tennis-Jesus are that without clarity sport will remain a megaphone for rage and confusion; just another note, as Chervin himself might put it, in the great amnesia.

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