January 18th, 2022

Novak Djokovic Thinks He Can Play by His Own Rules — Australia Says Think Again

YWCA Health Poster, 1920s.

There was a truly talented kid on my ninth grade basketball team — let’s call him Robbie G.

He was a terrific player, fast and confident on the court, always eager to play, and just brimming with enthusiasm for the game. Every time he scored, the team and crowd (small as it was) buzzed with excitement and shouted his name. A joy to watch.

But — and this might surprise you based on my introduction so far — Robbie was an immature jerk.

The rules didn’t apply to him. He did what he wanted during practice, and with few exceptions, the coach just shrugged and let him.

More from Robbie: He jokingly (ha ha) taunted the less-good players on the team, which meant just about everyone received some knocks. I certainly learned to avoid him both in the locker room and on the bench (where I spent most of my time during games).

When our team lost, or even worse — when he met his match in an opponent who guarded him closely — he became a petulant baby. These were not good times to cross his path, or heaven forbid try to comfort him.

This behavior carried over to non-basketball settings, and in school he was a terror. Sometimes a bully, sometimes only a disruptive nuisance, he quickly made his his presence known to everyone nearby — the effect amplified by a small group of less-talented (and equally annoying) sycophants.

I couldn’t help but think of Robbie while reading the news about Novak Djokovic, currently the best tennis player in the world. He can’t play in the Australian Open this year since he’s refused COVID-19 vaccination, and the Australian government will not approve his visa.

Like Robbie’s artistry on the basketball court, only scaled up to the adult and professional level, Djokovic’s tennis is a sight to behold. Here, let sports writer (and avid tennis fan) Joe Posnanski describe it (I’d never do it justice):

…He blends the most incomprehensible array of weapons — blazing speed, unmatched anticipation, a mathematician’s sense of angles, a tireless hunger to return every shot, a dream of a backhand and the best return of serve in tennis history — and turns every match into an art exhibit.

But … see what I wrote up there about Robbie, and the rules not applying to him? This fits the Djokovic affair perfectly. It also fits that Djokovic gave an interview and posed for a photoshoot for a media group after exposure to COVID-19 and testing positive by PCR.

I feel fine. Some of my tests were negative. See, the rules don’t apply to me.

High-level athletic ability facilitates this I-know-best view of the world. Here’s the recipe: A lifetime of winning. Adulation by friends, fans, teammates, coaches. Intense competitiveness. Suspicion of others. Wanting to beat others.

Mix these all together, and of course a person ingesting this potent brew is going to think they know best for themselves. Each win proves them right, reinforcing the problem.

In fact, we’re so used to hearing stories about rule-breaking behavior among professional athletes — how about football’s Aaron Roger’s definition of ‘immunized’? — that those who express thoughtful and generous sentiments stand out as model citizens. Tennis has two of these exemplars at ready hand, Roger Federer and Raphael Nadal. Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic — the “big three” — have dominated men’s tennis for over a decade.

Says Nadal, with searing accuracy, about the whole Djokovic affair:

If he wanted, he would definitely be playing here without a problem. Everybody is free to make their own decision – but there are some consequences, no?

Bravo. And let the record show that 97 out of the top 100 tennis players in the world are vaccinated. Djokovic, one of the three unvaccinated, refused the vaccine because he thought he could. His rules. The Australian government, citing their rules, said otherwise.

Back to Robbie G. for a moment. Remember, there’s another important difference between my basketball teammate Robbie and Djokovic, one that goes way beyond their relative fame, fortune, and chosen sport.

Robbie was 14 years old. Djokovic is 34.

30 Responses to “Novak Djokovic Thinks He Can Play by His Own Rules — Australia Says Think Again”

  1. Atul Kothari says:

    Not sure if the analogy applies to Novak. He did what he was asked to do by the Australian Open authorities, got an exemption from the local authorities, and then landed in a political quagmire, not of his own choosing. What comes across to me in this spectacle is that Djoko maintained his sense of decorum and composure, did not mislead people, and had the courage to stay and fight his case in the courts (of law, not in the made up courts of public opinion which the Aussie government was feeding). At another moment in time, he would be the David in this David v Goliath.

    • D Hart MD says:

      “…did not mislead people,…”

      On his Australian travel declaration form he failed to to declare that he had traveled in the two-week period before entering Australia.

      That’s a misleading omission in my book.

    • Zubair Butt says:

      You have it backwards Sir!
      He was the Goliath in this case …or so he thought. I do not know if you are a physician but I would check evidence based medicine, in addition to medical ethics for an answer to this problem.

      He was rightly administered the rules which apply to you and me equally. I support the equal administration of rules.

  2. D says:

    I can’t stand djokovic and his sins are many…though I agree with the above poster that after listening and reading about the actual details of his entry into Australia, the blame is rather diffuse — there is an interesting series of interviews by Patrick McEnroe called holding court that goes into all the political detail, very interesting really. I do think the tournament sort of led him on…djokovic should be maligned mostly for his being out in public after the positive PCR test— that is unforgivable. I’m not convinced he bent any rules for trying to enter Australia.

  3. Joel Gallant says:

    Interesting…the class bully in my school was also named Robbie, but his only “athletic” skill was beating other kids up. If he’s still around, I’m sure he’s an anti-vaxxer,.

  4. JDL says:

    There is a reason that the tennis-loving public does not hold Djokovic in the same esteem as they hold Federer and Nadal.

    This time, he’s proved that he is just another COV-IDIOT.

    • Riaan says:

      Referring to people who you do not agree with as idiots will not convince them or their supporters of your point of view and probably just strengthen their resolve. Ad Hominum fallacy! Implies you have no argument.

  5. A says:

    If he has COVID antibodies and recently had COVID, what additional protection beyond theater would a COVID vaccination have (his chance of hospitalization, death with COVID immunity as a young healthy athlete without comorbidities is essentially zero)? Further, he can still spread COVID vaccinated, boosted etc. If they were worried about public safety, they could test him ever day which would actually relay his COVID viremic status accurately over just being ‘vaccinated’. He was involved in political theater regarding requirements to be vaccinated beyond medical reason in a COVID naturally immune person. He submitted a medical exemption which could have been denied before he flew to the country. It was not, leading him to be trapped in a deportation debacle that could have been avoided had they just denied his medical exemption if they wanted to continue their vaccination requirement that provides no additional safety to the public or the person.

  6. Shishir Gokhale says:

    I beg to differ.

    Novak has a choice to take or not to take vaccine as all of us. Where he crossed the boundary was in making a false declaration and then trying to put the blame on his agent for filling the form (which he signed that means agreed and owned the contents).

    People at all stages of life can make mistakes (Boris Johnson is the latest example), but owning it makes them great. Novak failed this test. He has a chance to learn and come up in life.

    Interestingly he makes history as the only athlete who is banned and deported for NOT TAKING DRUGS!!!!!!

  7. Luiz A M Fonseca says:

    Vaccines are not drugs, in any sense.

    • Shishir Gokhale says:

      What I said about drugs was a pun.

      Yes I agree. Vaccines are not drugs, but need approval (emergency or otherwise) from the Federal Drug Agency!!! (another pun intended).

      Interesting isn’t it?

  8. Tony Mills says:

    Well penned Paul. I couldn’t agree with you more. And this is a pattern of behavior for him. Let’s not forget that in 2020 Djokovic hosted his own exhibition tour in Serbia and Croatia, flouted COVID guidelines, and many players and fans became infected. Paul you are exactly right. I have loved watching Djokovic play for many years but he, like many successful individuals, thinks the rules don’t apply to him.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/22/sports/tennis/djokovic-exhibition-positive-tests-coronavirus.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article

  9. Babak says:

    Is there any data regarding vaccination status of professional athletes by specific sport activity? I guess team sports should have higher COVID vaccination rates than individual ones.

  10. Jeff Kirchner says:

    Good piece Paul. Since you started by talking basketball (my favorite sport) let’s not forget
    another athlete with his own peculiar ways of thinking – Kyrie Irving of the Nets who bizarrely is allowed
    to play road games but not while his team is in New York.

  11. jonathan adler says:

    anti-vaxers have added to the spread of disease and contributed to the economic slowdown. imagine where we would be if all who were medically appropriate were vaccinated and all obeyed mask rulings–its about time those who refuse vaccination were excluded!

    • Eric says:

      Judging by the tenor of your response I assume you may have made a typo with your last word.
      Perhaps you were thinking “executed” ?

  12. Atul Kothari says:

    The following Twitter post is quite instructive and goes to the point that the devil is often in the details. Seems like Djoko had a negative antigen followed by a positive PCR test and wore a mask throughout his interview despite being asked to take it off.

    https://twitter.com/BenRothenberg/status/1481091814216302592?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1481091814216302592%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Ftheconversation.com%2Fdjokovic-admits-doing-photoshoot-knowing-he-was-covid-positive-174784

  13. Jean-Philippe Boucher says:

    Robbie G… I hope the guy isn’t the same as the San Francisco 49ers kicker, who is 20/20 in FG attempts in NFL playoffs and who seems a good teammate!

  14. Phil Le Bras says:

    A view from France :
    The Australian position is admittedly a little unclear. Initially it was said that all foreigners had to be vaccinated, while Australians could present a recent positive test certificate, but later this rule disappeared from the debate. It was simple!
    Then the state of Victoria allowed him to enter the Rod Laver (what a great player) Arena but not formally on Australian territory, the latter being a federal responsibility. However, it was difficult to enter the arena without entering Australia. In the end, the Australian state expelled Novak Djokovic on the grounds that he could set a bad example by encouraging non-vaccination and not for breaking the rules.
    However, it is certain that Novak Djokovic was blithely flouting the rules for ordinary people and surely thought that he would be exempted by right. He forgot that Australia and New Zealand have made no exceptions for the travel of their teams to rugby matches, which are probably as important to them as tennis tournaments.
    Two questions remain
    What will Novak Djokovic do for tournaments in the USA and even in France where vaccination is mandatory?
    when will the pandemic stop so that the current rules can be abolished?

  15. Zubair Butt says:

    The source of the problem is the Australian “Independent Medical Experts” 2 of them including Independent Medical Exemption Review Panel appointed by the Victorian Department of Health. They are the ones that erred in their decision. No one has access to their reason for exemption, as Jokovic medical history cannot be public information. But a top athlete like Jokovic would not be possibly suffering from the known risk factors contraindicating vaccines. His public stance implies he likes to bend the rules. Did he have hx vaccine allergy, hx gbs, hx neuropathy or side effects from a previous vaccine. I’m sure an intrepid reporter will eventually get to it. Fact remains though this guy is not a role model to me or my kids. Now what’s bad for my family— is that ok for the rest of the world?
    Its a free world!

  16. Chris Heath says:

    Nice piece, Paul. The devil is certainly in the detail. However, I certainly love your analogy of Djoko, with other similar sporting ‘greats’, who are widely worshipped; and yet, create a lot of collateral damage for everyone else – left behind in their wake. Maybe there’s something herein for us to reflect upon, within the sphere of medical practice? It seems to me that there’s still a lot of ‘medical mavericks’ – particularly prominent sub-specialty surgeons – that are still tolerated in hospital based practice, despite the collateral damage they produce elsewhere in the system. Maybe this is something for the evolving medical governance movement (‘paradigm’), to evolve more mature solutions, as I’m sure that ‘winner’ behaviour, ultimately impacts upon real patient outcomes…

  17. Nicholas Argent says:

    One thing that puzzles me about the whole Djokovic saga is that he claimed an exemption by having recovered from Covid, since he has declined to be vaccinated. Therefore, it would seem that his strategy for gaining access to the competition, was to go and get Covid. If this is truly the case, then he was extraordinarily fortunate to have contracted it at the last possible moment.

    It seems at least possible, that he didn’t contract the disease, but was able to get someone to state that he had. In fact this seems to be more plausible than him hanging on, hoping that he would catch it.

  18. Ricardo S Lemos says:

    I guess Djoko will have to get vaccinated or retire early, the way this pandemic is going and all the major tournaments’ requirements.

  19. Brian Baird says:

    In the article, the main connection between Robbie G and Djokovic is that talented competitors can develop the attitude that the rules don’t apply to them. They feel entitled to do as they please, and their ongoing competitive successes reinforce that.

    Djokovic decided to walk a tightrope in order to avoid vaccination – there was little room for error on his COVID tests and his visa forms. Any error was bound to cause an uproar due to the negative attitudes of the Australian people towards his situation – the Aussies have dealt with lockdowns and travel limitations more than most and the politicians sensed the tension. When the blunder came to light – and it was right there on social media, with Djokovic travelling within Europe and then lying on his visa form – he was as good as gone. Such are the risks of the tightrope. He could have gotten vaccinated and simply walked in, but I guess he thought he wouldn’t make a misstep or that he was entitled to a safety net. Nope.

    In the end, it’s just tennis. Let’s keep it real. But, it’s a good cautionary tale of hubris – we need those reminders. Thanks for laying it out, Dr Sax.

  20. Tom says:

    I am an Australian and this is what went down.

    AO gave him the exemption to play without vaccination. Victoria Statement Government gave him the exemption to enter Victorian Border (from Melbourne International Airport) without vaccination. Both these exemptions were granted based on the “fact” that he contracted COVID about a month ago.

    The Federal Government, who controls the international border, however, has made no such allowance and the Health Minister had, on two occasions, wrote letters to AO CEO and said Novak will not be allowed in if that’s the reason he is using.

    His Visa was granted based on the assumption that he will produce a valid exemption which he didn’t. Most of the people would’ve quietly accepted the fact and board the next plane home but not Novak. Somehow – with his money and influence, no doubt – he had managed to secure an 11th hour extension and a Federal Court hearing within 48 hours! And due to a procedural error made by Australian Border Force, the cancellation of his Visa was overturned.

    The Minister of Immigration then exercised his ministerial power and cancelled his Visa for the second time, citing his view on vaccination, which is public and well known, is a danger to public good. Now one would’ve thought that is it, time to pack up and go home. Novak managed, for the second time in a week, to secure another 11th hour Federal Court hearing! The full panel upheld the Minister’s decision.

    His privileged position and entitled attitude are laid bare by the entire incident and they flew directly in the face of what Australian holds most dear: a fair go for everyone. We endured hard lock downs and travel restrictions even at places that have only 1 or 2 cases so that we can get everyone vaccinated (to date, the vaccination rate is very close to 90%). And here is a foreign tennis player enjoying privileges by using his money, power, and influence.

    It’s no wonder why close to 80% of Aussies want him out.

  21. Sue says:

    Please can we stop talking about Covid. Time to move on. Vaccine doesn’t stop transmission. If you take the vaccine you are protecting yourself, possibly if you are over 65 and have co-morbities. (Especially obesity and diabetes). If you are “vaccinated” you are covered. At least that is what you believe not me

  22. Happy says:

    And then there’s also this piece from BBC implying his positive covid test may have been falsified…

    https://www.bbc.com/news/59999541?piano-modal

  23. christoph stuessi says:

    nonsense! Djokovic could have gotten his vaccination and play. And be a leader to the world of tennis. All other discussion is on a wrong level. He chose himself and chose wrong,

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HIV Information: Author Paul Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, MD

Contributing Editor

NEJM Journal Watch
Infectious Diseases

Biography | Disclosures | Summaries

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