2020 has provided sportspeople with ample opportunity to rise above an otherwise tumultuous year and use their platform for the better. Whether it’s the embrace of kneeling at various sporting events to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, to cringy stay at home tutorials, to Marcus Rashford’s public battle with the UK government to provide extra cover for free school meals. Sport coming back has provided a welcome relief to those stuck at home, however despite all it has going for it, one of the world’s largest sportspeople has managed to see his stock fall dramatically in 2020.
World Number 1 tennis player Novak Djokovic should be having a stellar year. Unbeaten in 26 games going into the last 16 in the US Open, Djokovic is edging closer and closer to Roger Federer’s Grand Slam record. Somehow, his defaulting from the year’s belated second Grand Slam after striking lineswoman Laura Clarke with a ball following a frustrated swing of his racket is potentially the least controversial thing he has done.
Down in the first set against Pablo Carreno-Butsa, Djokovic hit is ball away in frustration. It hit Clarke in the throat and appeared to cause her great discomfort. After discussions with the umpire Djokovic was defaulted from the competition, thus forfeiting all prizemoney and ranking point he otherwise would have received. This is the latest in a string of controversies Djokovic has seen himself embroiled in.
After sport’s global suspension earlier in the year, Djokovic revealed himself to be an anti-vaxxer. He threw doubt over his ability to resume competitive action if it meant taking a vaccine for the virus. “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” he told a Facebook livestream.
What followed was a botched exhibition tournament hosted by Djokovic in June that flouted social distancing rules and resulted in multiple coronavirus cases.
Planned in May when the rest of the world was in peak lockdown, The Adria Tour was to take place in 4 cities across Serbia and Croatia and would feature some of the highest ranked players in tennis. Neither country was particularly hit hard by Covid-19 and had at that point began to emerge from lockdown but still had 1-meter social distancing rules.
The tournament itself featured no such distancing. A packed crowd of 4000 turned out on the first day with no social distancing and few wearing face masks. Djokovic and the other players hugged, shook hands, and played basketball matches together. Some of the players were filmed partying in local nightclubs.
Inevitably, following World No. 20 Grigor Dimitrov’s announcement that he had tested positive for coronavirus, multiple positive tests followed for players, including Djokovic and his wife Jelena. Dimitrov’s agent stated that his player had arrived in Serbia off the back of 3 months of isolation and had neither been offered or required to take a test. Djokovic’s camp pinned the blame on Dimitrov. Djokovic later claimed, “I don’t think I’ve done anything bad”. Other players on the tour condemned Djokovic for organising the event. Andy Murray called it a “kids’ day”.
Even his participation in the months US Open has been seen by some as another flaunting of the rules, with multiple tennis players including Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer declining to take part. Ahead of the tournament, Djokovic again found himself in the middle of another self-created controversy.
Before the competition, Djokovic resigned from the ATP Players Council ahead of an expected announcement of a new players union. For context, the ATP is the sole organising body of men’s tennis, with the WTA the women’s equivalent. In recent times, there has been a push from within to unite the two bodies as one. Djokovic’s new Professional Tennis Players Council however, is reported to be male only.
The ATP’s acting president Kevin Andersen said that the move could undermine the very structure of men’s tennis. Nadal and Federer opposed the move and called for unity at a time of uncertainty. A dispute had arisen over the ATP’s structure, which features a 50-50 split between players and tournament organisers. It had been agreed earlier in the year that new management would tackle some key concerns around TV rights. Andersen said Djokovic’s subsequent move ‘blindsided’ the ATP.
While it is not known exactly what triggered this sudden decision, the current male-only nature of his new union may have something to do with it. There has been a move from Federer and others to create better equality and to merge the men’s and women’s associations. It is worth noting that Djokovic has supported pay equality, however creating divisions within tennis along such lines has furthered a sharp decline in his public image.
Currently still the best tennis player in the world, Djokovic likely will surpass Federer’s Slam milestone. His abilities and achievements will ultimately stand tall. As a major sportsperson however, it is also important to use that popularity for good. Federer is universally popular and widely considered one of the greatest sportspeople ever. Likeability and using your image to spread positivity and further the sport around you have always been the hallmarks of all-time sportspeople.
2020 has seen a series of incredibly poor judgements taint the way in which Djokovic is seen. He arrived in Flushing Meadows almost as pantomime villain. At a time in which other have made their voice heard Djokovic has managed to engineer an ignominious public fall from grace.