The Djokovic circus allows us to see all our Covid prejudices play out | Emma Jean

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Stefanos Tsitsipas learned to listen to Covid science the hard way. Not the really hard way, of course. It’s not the rough road that the most unfortunate vaccine resisters have gone on, after ingesting conspiracy theories about side effects and regurgitating social media promises that there’s no risk for young people and in good health. Thankfully, the world’s No. 4-ranked tennis player didn’t end up battered by the virus or on a ventilator in hospital – he just found himself publicly reprimanded by his own government.

While Tsitsipas’ father and coach Apostolos has given interviews claiming that “athletes have an immune system strong enough to face any challenge”, the Greek government spokesman pointed out that a player 23-year-old tennis player, as successful as he is in his field, had “neither the knowledge, nor the studies, nor the research work” to offer valid advice on vaccination. The story had a happy ending, however: Tsitsipas did indeed stop spouting ill-informed guesswork and got stung.

On Friday, just three days before the start of the Australian Open, he was one of many players to share his views on Novak Djokovic’s visa lawsuits, before the world No. 1 was told that he would be deported on Sunday, with the full federal court rejecting Djokovic’s request to reinstate his visa. “There are two ways of looking at it,” Tsitsipas said. “On the one hand, almost all the players are fully vaccinated… and have followed the protocols to play in Australia. On the other hand, it seems that not everyone follows the rules. Those words sounded less like opposing perspectives and more like a single sharp point. ” A very small [minority] chose to go its own way,” Tsitsipas said, “which makes the majority look like fools.

And so, for the second time about the Covid, Tsitsipas was again wrong. Because Djokovic’s position did not ridicule his peers at all. Amid what Rafael Nadal has aptly dubbed “a circus” – a procedural farce of legal miasma, medical obfuscation and mob politics – his fellow tennis players have emerged looking the least like clowns.

It was they, rather than the sports administrators, or the Australian Prime Minister, or even Djokovic himself, who reacted to the situation surrounding their compatriot in the most measured and thoughtful way. Take Nadal, widely recognized as one of the tour’s natural diplomats, whose initial summary of the mess his rival has found himself in was devastatingly simple. “If he wanted to, he would definitely play here no problem,” Nadal said, with a not insensitive shrug. “Everyone is free to make their own decision – but there are consequences, right?”

At a time when much of what was circulating was invective, here is a quiet portion of truth. And while it was clear where he stood on the subject, it was also clear that it wasn’t personal and that he felt sorry for the predicament Novak had found himself in. When the defending Australian Open champion was finally released to participate in the draw, Nadal supported the process that got him there and wished him luck, because “whether I agree or no with Djokovic on certain things, justice has spoken”.

Most players asked about Djokovic showed a similar willingness to pair sympathy for what a friend and fellow athlete was going through with an equally strong message about the importance of getting vaccinated. Andy Murray, always one to speak his mind, saved his wasp sightings for Nigel Farage, who was visiting Djokovic’s family: “Please save the awkward moment when you tell them you’ve spent most of your career campaigning to get people deported from Eastern Europe.”

For the world number 1, however, there was genuine concern – “it’s positive that he is no longer in custody” – alongside a typically expressive sigh. Murray declined to comment until Djokovic had a chance to answer questions about his Covid tests and Murray’s brother Jamie was only a little more ironic. “If it was me who wasn’t vaccinated, I wouldn’t get a waiver,” he said, as his British team-mate Liam Broady couldn’t hide his laughter behind his hands. “But kudos to him for being allowed to come to Australia and compete.”

The tennis circuit locker room is a truly unique sporting, working and living environment. Often it feels like it’s populated by enemies, rivals bent on learning and exposing each other’s weaknesses, while being forced to spend time together to the point of becoming an on-and-off family but not all. quite comfortable. It’s a place where you have to fend for yourself and the only people who can understand your situation are the very people who challenge you. While the outsiders have been quick to use Djokovic as a totem, whether for personal freedoms or border control, it’s those who actually play against the man who can best relate to what he’s going through right now.

This episode shone a light on the kind of respect and patience that helps their community function. To them, Djokovic is neither an abstract representation of the age of misinformation nor a vegan super-savior fighting injustice one tennis tournament at a time (although his own father called him Spartacus). He’s an athlete who pushes himself hard, loves his sport, loves their company. They can love it, admire it and feel it while maintaining a firm belief that Covid safety matters.

Unlike team sports, where coaches, managers and captains can (and arguably should) impose some leadership on their players to keep everyone safe, the worlds of individual sports such as tennis, golf, snooker or athletics rely on relationships between peers. Djokovic is, in fact, an outlier on the ATP Tour; 97 of the top 100 players are vaccinated and vaccination in professional tennis has improved dramatically after the Australian Open made it mandatory.

What his fellow athletes have done, in effect, is model how to deal with this issue in our own communities – with personal generosity to those who cannot or will not share our views, while maintaining an open commitment without exasperation. to science and facts. Each of us has friends, family members or co-workers who have their own hard-line views on why they won’t take the vaccine. Everyone is free to make their own decision – but there are consequences, right?

Emma John’s book, Self Contained: Scenes From a Single Life, is now available

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