Djokovic And The Vaccine: Conviction Or Stubbornness?

It’s one thing to be particular about your body. Another is to keep seeking exemptions, as Djokovic did for the recent Miami and Indian Wells events, even where the law mandates Covid vaccination

Novak Djokovic

Flexibility has been the hallmark of Novak Djokovic’s court coverage ever since he arrived on the tennis circuit a decade and a half ago. The Serbian at full stretch, legs split so wide they are almost parallel to the ground, is among the recurring and glorious sights in sport. His bones seem to contain lycra. 

But when it comes to certain attitudes, stubbornness defines Djokovic. This has been most apparent in his refusal to take the Covid vaccine, at great cost not just to himself but also tournament organizers who have to spend precious time and energy in granting him an exemption or rejecting it, and then explaining their actions. 

In 2010, on the advice of Dr Igor Cetojevic, Djokovic overhauled his lifestyle, going gluten-free and working on his breathing technique, among other things. A better diet meant better digestion. Better digestion meant more energy and better lungs. The change turned Djokovic’s career around. Since then, he has been understandably particular about what enters the fine-tuned race car that his body is. Yes, Djokovic has taken injections in his life, but as much as possible, he sticks to natural foods and remedies. 

"I was never against vaccination," he said in an interview following the giant and needless kerfuffle over his 2022 Australian Open appearance, where the hosts were to blame too. “But I've always supported the freedom to choose what you put in your body."

Goji berries, water with happy emotions, carrying an oxygen chamber to matches, Djokovic’s explorations to keep himself in optimal health have ranged from inspiring to bizarre. But most of them have worked. A distant third to the Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer duopoly at one time, he has now zoomed past Federer and stands level with Nadal with 22 Grand Slams, the most in history. Most bets are on him to topple Nadal too. 

So, regardless of his dietary fastidiousness, it was expected that Djokovic, being an elite athlete on his way to becoming the GOAT (Greatest of All Time), would be open to a Covid jab. After all, the vaccine was the only chance humanity had against a deadly virus. Even the most averse to medicines greedily lined up for shots. Common sense dictated it was better to be alive with side effects than die alone in a hospital gasping for breath. 

But Djokovic did not budge, on the grounds that he did not know exactly what the vaccine would achieve against an enemy that was mutating anyway. 

“How are we expecting that (the vaccine) to solve our problem when this coronavirus is mutating regularly from what I understand?” he said in an interview. 

But the world moved on. Players took their shots and resumed playing. At one point 99 out of the top 100 players were vaccinated, except Djokovic. He has missed major tournaments due to his stance. Last year, he could not play in the Australian Open and the US Open. Most recently, he missed the Miami and Indian Wells events in the US. This costs him rankings points and a chance to improve his resume, already the best in history.   

Djokovic, who maintains he has not ruled out taking the vaccine, has polarised the sports and medical worlds. Some feel he has shown his strength of conviction and guarded himself against potential side effects of the vaccine. But many feel the negatives are greater. Djokovic and his wife Jelena both got Covid in 2020, when, during the peak of the pandemic, Djokovic organized an exhibition tournament in Serbia called the Adria Tour. It featured plenty of partying and mingling at a time when social distancing was the need. 

Besides, every time Djokovic plays or thinks of playing, in a country where vaccination is mandatory, it adds an extra layer of rigmarole to the job of organizers. He may have technical reasons to claim an exemption, but then other players demand answers as to why they have to be vaccinated. It leads to a situation where it’s different rules for different players. There also is the charge that Djokovic sounds lofty when he speaks of his willingness to miss tournaments for the sake of his body and his “choice”, but then also seeks waivers to play. 

Take the example of the Miami and Indian Wells events in the US. The US State Department allows certain groups an exemption on the vaccination rule - children, participants in Covid vaccine trials, military members, and people with “rare medical contraindications to the vaccines”. None of these categories applies to Djokovic, yet he applied for an exemption. This is akin to wanting to have your cake and eat it too.   

Recently, Toni Nadal, the uncle and former coach of Rafael Nadal, hit the nail on the head. 

“We have a very good relationship [with Djokovic]. Djokovic has his principles, but sometimes you have to question them,” he said. “If we had all acted like him (about the vaccine), maybe we would have ten times the victims of the pandemic.”

Toni Nadal’s statement indirectly highlights the thanklessness of some people towards the vaccine, towards the people who worked night and day to roll it out in a few months. Nearly everyone was clamouring for a vaccine in the initial months of Covid. And now many of the same people are knocking it down. Djokovic unintentionally gave more ammunition to the anti-vaxer brigade. 

He was criticized for this by his countryman Predrag Kon, an epidemiologist and member of Serbia’s Covid Crisis HQ. 

“As one of Djokovic's most loyal supporters, I wish I had had the opportunity to make him familiar to the significance and immense contribution of immunizations to the health of the population,” he said. “It's late now, he's created misconceptions, so there's no more help here. Maestro, I wish you all the best, but you should avoid direct answers to the vaccination-related questions because you have a huge impact.” 


Kon later toned down his statements. But he had made his point. 

On a tennis court, Novak Djokovic boasts a complete game with all the strokes. Unfortunately, one shot – the Covid vaccine – remains missing from his resume.