IS NOVAK DJOKOVIC PLAYING THE LONG GAME?


After all the hullabaloo that was the lead-in to the Australian Open, the Novak Djokovic saga had taken a back seat as the tour returned to its regular programming throughout January and February. 

However, in the last ten days, Djokovic has participated in a “tell-all” interview with an English broadcaster, re-joined the tour, had two solid wins, lost his world number 1 ranking in a massive upset, and further expressed his grievances with the Australian Government on Serbian TV with subsequent reports spreading globally.

And while Tennis Australia, the Victorian Government, and the Federal Government alike have neglected to answer what indeed happened throughout the entire shameful ordeal, at least Novak has – unlike the aforementioned culprits – fronted a camera and given the public some answers.  Not that many liked what they heard. 

In a specifically curated interview with the BBC’s Amol Rajan, Djokovic delivered a succinct and eloquent performance befitting of the grand slam stage. 

Likely with the help of a very well-paid London PR firm (as is rumoured), Djokovic, known for his meticulous preparation, had an answer for every question and appeared to be at peace with his current predicament.

For instance, moments after stating he still – after all that he has been through – remains unvaccinated, Djokovic said he was “never against vaccination” and that he prioritizes “the principle of understanding of what is right and wrong for you”.

When asked by Rajan whether he is willing to accept the potential impacts to his sporting legacy, Djokovic stated “I understand that not being vaccinated today, you know, I am not able to travel to most of the tournaments.”

“That is the price I am willing to pay”, the Serbian stated.  

Strangely, Djokovic also asserted that he keeps his “mind open” to the prospect of being vaccinated in the future.

It’s nice of him to say that, but his words here cannot be reconciled with his actions. 

After all, one would think that following his experience in Melbourne, if Djokovic were open to vaccination, he’d have simply received his dose(s) by now. If not for medical purposes, it is the path of least resistance professionally. 

As written by Tumaini Carayol in The Guardian, Djokovic’s stubbornness has become his defining, and self-sabotaging, trait. He continually insists on making life more difficult than it needs to be. He remains steadfast in his commitment to doing things his way.

It’s always been the way for Djokovic.

First, it was his refusal to receive surgery on a troublesome shoulder, then it was a radical new diet that tore a rift through his support team, the default at the 2020 US Open for hitting a line judge after numerous close calls, followed by his refusal to receive a mere vaccination.

So much so he is willing to miss returning to Roland Garros to defend his title.  As a result, smart money would suggest we will see Rafael Nadal; Djokovic’s only real threat to the all-encompassing title of men’s tennis’ statistical GOAT, claim a fourteenth title (and 22nd overall) at his house of pain on court Philippe-Chatrier. 

In fact, according to the ATP, he is the only one of the top 100 players to remain unvaccinated.

The question quickly becomes “why”.

Why, after having endured all that he has, would Djokovic go down this path?

Why not try and avoid the complications and the drama?

Therefore, we must ask, is Novak really at peace with the idea of losing his title as the men’s tennis’ GOAT, or does he believe he will finish on top anyway?

Perhaps, Djokovic’s stubbornness, for once, is calculated.  Maybe he is about to have his cake and eat it too. Maybe, he’s playing the long game where he can remain unvaccinated in accordance with his principles and still finish his career as the GOAT.

Despite the global vaccination push, many countries are winding back their restrictions in a bid to return to “normality” – whatever that is.

Norway and Denmark have removed all COVID-19 related restrictions.  Importantly, so has England.  Meaning Djokovic will be able to return to the All England Club to fight for a 21st grand slam title.

Djokovic knows this. He knows that COVID-19 related travel restrictions cannot last forever.  

At 34 years old, Djokovic has already expressed his desire to compete at the Paris 2024 Olympics.  He’s also seen a 36-year-old Roger Federer win grand slams and return to world number 1 in 2018.  He knows he has time.

In all likelihood, Djokovic will continue playing for another 5 or so years.  Nadal on the other hand would appear unlikely – although one can never say never with Nadal – to continue as long.  Similarly, Federer seems most unlikely to add to his grand slam tally.

And for all the talk of the ‘NextGen’, when it comes to Djokovic, he is his own biggest threat at grand slam level.

To illustrate, since 2019, Djokovic has won six of the 12 grand slams played.  Of the six others, he was primarily in control of his own demise in four of them. 

In one he retired injured (2019 US Open), in another he was disqualified (2020 US Open), in another he buckled under the weight of a calendar grand slam (2021 US Open), and most recently his own choices meant he could not compete (2022 Australian Open).

Djokovic knows this and believes that for now, when he plays his best tennis, he is unstoppable. 

Yes, Medvedev is the new world number one.  But the exceptional circumstances of the 2021 US Open aside, Djokovic has his measure for the most part.  Equally, Nadal hasn’t beaten Djokovic on a hard court since 2013.  Dominic Thiem hasn’t been spotted in 18 months.  Zverev – who should soon receive a lengthy ban from the tour – continually struggles at grand slams and Tsitsipas has lost his last five matches against the Serbian. 

So don’t be surprised when Djokovic misses Roland Garros.  Even if Nadal wins, he will back himself in to win again at Wimbledon. 

From there, he knows that COVID-19 related restrictions cannot last much longer. 

Yes, he might miss another slam or two.  But Djokovic likely plans to play in at least 16 more. And for a man that’s won 43% of all men’s singles grand slams since the start of 2011, he’s not worried about Nadal getting one ahead for now. 

He’s playing the long game. He wants to have his cake and eat it too.