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Tennis Limbo

Novak Djokovic didn’t need to give tennis fans any other reasons to hate him. Considering he may be the most accomplished tennis player of all time, he is remarkably not well received. For example, when he goes down a set at a major, fans almost instinctively cheer for the other guy. Compare that to other historic greats, like Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal or Serena Williams, or any of the other legendary figures in tennis history. Fans always rallied for greatness, as being witness to near perfection was its own reward. It’s simply never been the case with Djokovic, a reality he’s both seemingly engendered while also clearly disliking.

Do not expect that to change anytime soon. In a move that only wrestling heels could appreciate, Djokovic now find himself in some strange limbo down under as he hopes to defend his Australian Open title starting next week. We may not know if that’s possible until the moment of his first serve, all depending on whether Australian authorities decided to revoke Djokovic’s work VISA and send him back to Serbia. This all stems from two incidents. First, the fact that Djokovic has opted not to get vaccinated, which puts him at odds with Australia, and largely what got him stuck in a quarantine hotel when he arrived on the continent. Second, is his fairly shady vaccine waiver that was based on an alleged positive test on December 16. Even if that result is verified, and there’s questions, Djokovic was seen out and about – mask free – on the 17th. Also, there was an issue of a false travel declaration about where he was in the 14 days before coming to Australia, something that could technically land him in Australian jail for a year. All of that does not sit very well with either a tennis public that expects a bit more decorum from its megastars or a nation that’s far more diligent than most in keeping the virus at bay.

For the time being, the world number one is free from hotel jail and hitting the practice courts in Melbourne, assuming he’ll be able to play next week. It seems fairly likely that’s going to be the case, as neither the Australian Open nor the Australian government seems to want to play the heavy here. Kicking Djokovic out of either the tournament or the country seems like it might be as self-destructive as it would be satisfying, unless the Australian government wants to start a global stand-off with Serbia. Even if a lot of Australians probably want him out because he didn’t play by the rules, I’m also guessing the ratings will be a lot better with him on a tennis court instead of inside a real court.

There’s a couple of questions here, beyond any controversy about whether people should be forced to get the vaccine. First, there’s the obvious quandary of whether professional athletes should get special privilege, something most everyone assumes to be true – whether it’s a crazy tennis pro or an NFL athlete with a criminal charge or a college athlete skating through classes. There’s a longtime narrative that popular athletes play by different rules, which certainly seems to be the case here. And while the general public often turns a blind eye to athletic impropriety, they’re less likely to do so for someone they already dislike. And especially when pretty much everyone feels they’ve given up so much over the last two years.

Second, and more to the heart of this, is what makes an athlete beloved – something Novak Djokovic certainly is not outside of Serbia and his relatively small legion of fans. Popular athletes seem to come in all shapes and sizes, from the stoic and graceful Roger Federer to the playful Rob Gronkowski to the supremely confident LeBron James. Of course, they’re all winners. But they also, in their own way, have an underlying sense of, well, humanity. And ability for fans to relate to and, more importantly, look up to. Even the polarizing Tom Brady has that. It’s why Serena Williams is so good at selling – we all, or at least most admire her.

Novak Djokovic – not so much. And even less so now that he’s decided our health and our rules are less important than his. That’s the takeaway here. Not that Djokovic is an anti-vaxxer. That’s more common than we think. It’s that when it comes down to it, he doesn’t seem care about us. Which is why most tennis fans don’t care a whole lot about him, especially now. Of course, most fans didn’t really need another reason.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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