The Djokovic circus allows us to see all our Covid prejudices being played out | Emma John


Stefanos Tsitsipas learned to listen to Covid science the hard way. Not the really hard way, of course. Not the hard way that more unfortunate vaccine-resisters have experienced, after they’ve ingested conspiracy theories about side effects and regurgitated social media promises that there’s no risk to the young and healthy. The world’s No 4-ranked tennis player didn’t, mercifully, find himself laid low by the virus or on a ventilator in hospital – he just found himself publicly rebuked by his own government.

While Tsitsipas’s father-cum-coach, Apostolos, gave interviews claiming that “athletes have a strong enough immune system to deal with any challenge”, Greece’s government spokesman was pointing out that a 23-year-old tennis player, however successful in his field, had “neither the knowledge, nor the studies, nor the research work” to offer valid opinions on vaccination. The story had a happy ending, though: Tsitsipas did indeed stop spouting poorly informed conjecture and got himself jabbed.

On Friday, just three days before the Australian Open was due to begin, he was one of the many players sharing their views on Novak Djokovic’s visa-related trials, before the world No 1 was told he would be deported on Sunday, with the full federal court dismissing Djokovic’s bid to restore his visa. “There are two ways to look at it,” said Tsitsipas. “One side of it is that almost every single player is fully vaccinated… and has followed the protocols to play in Australia. On the other hand, it seems not everyone is playing by the rules.” These words sounded less like opposing perspectives and more like a single, pointed, point. “A very small majority chose to follow their own way,” said Tsitsipas, “which kind of makes the majority look like fools.”

And so, for the second time on the subject of Covid, Tsitsipas was again in the wrong. Because Djokovic’s stand hasn’t made his peers look foolish at all. In the midst of what Rafael Nadal has accurately dubbed “a circus” – a procedural farce of legal miasma, medical obfuscation and crowd-playing politics – his fellow tennis players are the ones who have emerged looking the least like clowns.

It is they, rather than the sport’s administrators, or the Australian prime minister, or even Djokovic himself, who have responded to the situation surrounding their fellow competitor in the most measured and thoughtful way. Take Nadal, widely agreed to be one of the tour’s natural diplomats, whose initial summary of the mess his rival found himself in was devastatingly simple. “If he wanted he would definitely be playing here without a problem,” said Nadal, with a not unfeeling shrug. “Everybody is free to take their own decision – but there are some consequences, no?”

At a time when much of what was flying around was invective, here was a quiet helping of truth. And while it was clear where he stood on the subject, it was also clear this wasn’t personal and that he felt sorry for the tough situation Novak had ended up in. When the reigning Australian Open champion was finally freed to enter the draw, Nadal backed the process that had got him there and wished him luck, because “whether or not I agree with Djokovic on some things, justice has spoken”.

Most players questioned about Djokovic showed a similar willingness to blend sympathy for what a friend and fellow athlete was going through with an equally strong message about the importance of being vaccinated. Andy Murray, always one to speak his mind, saved his waspish observations for Nigel Farage, who was visiting Djokovic’s family: “Please record the awkward moment when you tell them you’ve spent most of your career campaigning to have people from eastern Europe deported.”

For the world No 1, however, there was genuine concern – “it’s positive that he’s not in detention any more” – alongside a typically expressive sigh. Murray refused to offer any opinion until Djokovic had had the opportunity to answer questions surrounding his Covid tests and Murray’s brother, Jamie, was only a little more wry. “If it was me that wasn’t vaccinated I wouldn’t be getting an exemption,” he said, while his GB teammate Liam Broady failed to hide his laughter behind his hands. “But well done to him for getting cleared to come to Australia and compete”.

The locker room on the tennis circuit is a truly unique sporting, working and living environment. Often, it gives the impression that it’s peopled with frenemies, rivals bent on learning and exposing each other’s weaknesses, while forced to spend time together to the extent that they become an intermittent but not altogether comfortable family. It is a place where you must fend for yourself and the only people who can empathise with your circumstances are the very ones challenging you. While outsiders have been quick to use Djokovic as a totem, whether for personal freedoms or border control, it’s those who actually play against the man who can best fathom what he’s going through right now.

This episode has shone a light on the kind of respect and patience that helps their community to function. To them, Djokovic is neither an abstract representation of the age of disinformation nor a vegan super-saviour fighting injustice one tennis tournament at time (although his own father has called him Spartacus). He is an athlete who pushes himself hard, loves his sport, enjoys their company. They can like, admire and feel for him while maintaining a firm belief that Covid safety matters.

Unlike team sports, where coaches, managers and captains can (and arguably should) impose some leadership on their players to ensure everyone’s safety, the worlds of individual sports such as tennis, golf or snooker or athletics rely on peer-to-peer relationship. Djokovic is, in fact, an outlier on the ATP tour; 97 of the top 100 players are vaccinated and vaccination take-up across professional tennis improved dramatically after the Australian Open made it mandatory.

What his fellow athletes have done, in effect, is to model the way to deal with this issue in our own communities – with personal generosity towards those who can’t or won’t share our views, while we maintain an open, unexasperated commitment to science and fact. Every one of us has friends, family or colleagues with their own intransigent views on why they won’t take the vaccine. Everybody is free to take their own decision – but there are some consequences, no?

Emma John’s book, Self Contained: Scenes From a Single Life, is out now