On Sunday, Novak Djokovic was denied entry to the United States, again.
He’s been trying to get in for more than a year, but since he is the most famously unvaccinated person alive, no dice.
This is political, but Djokovic has learned to keep the politics out of it. He just asks and is refused. It says something about how far COVID has fallen down our societal to-do list that this time around, he had support.
Djokovic wanted to play at Indian Wells, which starts this week in California. Two U.S. senators wrote letters in support of giving him an exemption of the vaccination mandate for all visitors. Indian Wells, the U.S. Open and the Miami Open shared the same sentiment.
But, apparently, no go. Djokovic pulled out of the tournament on Sunday night. America’s COVID state of emergency ends on May 11. Presumably, we’ll try this again in August at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati.
Like everything interesting, you can argue both sides of this. Rules are rules for a reason, not for the rich. If my prepper cousin Charlie can’t get into the U.S. to go to Comic-Con, then I don’t see why this guy should be allowed. It matters that much to you? Then get the jab. You don’t want to get the jab? Then it can’t matter that much to you.
At the same time, the idea that Djokovic presents a threat to health and safety is farcical. A fifth of the U.S. population isn’t vaccinated. You know where you’ll find a lot of them? At tennis tournaments.
Who’s spending two grand on tickets to watch sports on a Tuesday afternoon? Santa Clara fintech millionaires who hate Trump, but think there’s something to this 5G business. Every time Djokovic hits a court in America, he’ll be among his people.
We can and have gone on and on about Djokovic’s vaccine stand. I can’t agree with it. I can’t even understand it. But by this point, I have begun to admire it. Because when we talk in a sports context about a ‘winning mentality,’ this is what one actually looks like. It’s continuing to walk into strong, contrary winds, even if they’ve become a hurricane.
For the past few decades, professional athletes have been fighting a rearguard action against pressure.
The money shot up. Sports channels went dedicated and 24 hours. The number of people covering events sprawled. Worst of all, social media got its hooks into them.
A pro used to show up, play, talk a bit about it and go home. If she didn’t want to know what people were saying about her, there was a strategy to combat that – don’t turn the TV on and don’t open the newspaper.
Unless you’re going full 19th century, bubbling yourself is no longer possible and, surprise surprise, athletes have begun to lose the plot. The pressure on them to perform hasn’t changed. What’s changed is that they are stuck in a merciless, roiling feedback loop that never turns off.
How far would Picasso have gotten if his phone was pinging every five seconds to let him know that someone else thought Les Demoiselles d’Avignon looked sloppy and weird?
Cue the march of the psychotherapists. No pro can be without one, or six, nowadays. Recent reporting has suggested that NFL quarterback Russell Wilson went from future hall-of-famer to barely-able-to-throw-a-spiral immediately after his mental coach, Trevor Moawad, died. Moawad’s method focused on helping people eliminate negative thoughts.
On aggregate, who in our society is force-fed more negativity than a professional athlete? No one.
And which athlete has been more gleefully lampooned and righteously condemned over the past few years than Djokovic? Nobody.
Since shortly after COVID appeared and he started talking about thinking vitamins into water, Djokovic has been everyone’s punching bag, including mine. He’s a perfect target – in the wrong about something that is relatively low stakes, a bit flaky, has a smarmy aspect. Most issues and people are complicated. This one and this guy don’t appear to be. That’s when people feel most freed to be casually cruel.
What does Djokovic do with all that? He turns it into victory. He’s winning at a greater pace now than he was before he got put on the Centre for Disease Control’s 10-most-wanted list. He’s won more tournaments this year (2) than he’s lost matches (1).
To do it at all is remarkable. To do it when so many people are openly pulling for you to fall flat on your face, and letting you know they are in real time, is approaching superhuman.
Analysts love to talk about the physicality of top pros, but most of them are working with the same resources in that regard. These days, they are all as fit as a person can be. Anyone who isn’t doesn’t remain a top pro for long.
But there can be a wide variation in the will to win. As great as Roger Federer was, no one has ever folded in more big matches. He played in 31 grand slam finals and lost 11 of them.
Federer was universally beloved. Anyone who said anything approaching a bad word about him was shouted down. This is not to say Federer didn’t earn that admiration, just that he had it and that it smoothed his professional path. And he still collapsed with regularity.
Djokovic is not universally beloved. If you’ve got a bad word about him, a hundred others will volunteer a few more. It may be his own fault, but he is still out there slugging against the world. It is far too often said of modern athletes that they are brave. But what Djokovic has done is brave. Stupid, but brave.
Since becoming a global lightning rod in the biggest news story of all our lifetimes, Djokovic has played in six grand slam finals and won five of them. As the pressure increases, far beyond a level any of his critics would find bearable themselves, he gets better.
Djokovic may not be much of a scientist, but it has become hard to think of a more perfect example of a winner.