Novak Djokovic: The elephant in the room, the press conference and the question of character

In the end, it wasn’t much of a press conference. At least, it did not follow the form one expects from such an event. Too much applause for one thing, too few relevant questions for another.

The room where it took place in Belgrade was packed with scores of journalists, what seemed like Novak Djokovic’s entire extended family and a rather superfluous collection of tennis trophies set out on one end of the top table. And yet, despite all this clutter, despite all the reporters, there was still room for an elephant to be present.

Court documents confirm that the central plank of Djokovic’s argument that he is legally entitled to stay in Australia is his award of a vaccine exemption after contracting Covid on 16 December.

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Since this detail emerged at the end of last week, so, unhelpfully, have several photos of Djokovic attending numerous events, including one with children, in Belgrade in the days afterwards. It seems to cut to the heart of one of the most important considerations: Djokovic’s character.

Reigning champion Djokovic lifted the 2021 Australian Open trophy on February 21, 2021. (Photo by TPN/Getty Images)

Selfish is the description that it is hard to avoid using. He is willing to do anything, including risk the health of others, it seems, to be on court in Melbourne next week to defend his Australia Open title and all the personal glory and yet more wealth that comes with securing a record-breaking 21st grand slam. Talk about vainglorious.

We know we are supposed to celebrate a sportsman or sportswoman's single-mindedness and will to win but in the words of the original superbrat of tennis, you cannot be serious!

And yet, it seems, he is being serious. His family are also being serious, with his father, Srdjan, becoming the first to proclaim that the court victory in Melbourne – funny how these words now take on a completely different meaning – was his greatest triumph (cue applause). They want us to believe he has already lifted his 21st grand slam.

Of course, even this claim is still pending. In an ever-evolving saga that has even included Nigel Farage turning up in the snowy streets of Belgrade dressed like a baddie from an Indiana Jones film (funny who should turn up at a time of heightened Serbian nationalism), we know anything can still happen. Australia Immigration minister Alex Hawke is still able to cancel Djokovic’s visa for one thing, effectively forcing him to leave Australia. He still risks being given a three-year ban from the country. Now 34, that, surely, would confirm he has already won the last of his nine Australia Open titles.

Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic's (L-R) uncle Goran, mother Dijana, father Srdjan and brother Djordje hold a press conference in Belgrade. (Photo by PEDJA MILOSAVLJEVIC/AFP via Getty Images)

In the meantime, he is carrying on as if it’s just a normal countdown to another grand slam. He was out there hitting balls at the Rod Laver Arena within minutes of the press conference ending – at his lookalike brother Djordje’s insistence – back in his homeland.

The world No. 1 seems to be employing a tactic of normalising his presence there and making it harder for the authorities to eject him. He is trying to stick to a routine as much as possible – or at least as much as someone can after spending several days holed up in a hotel doubling as an immigration detention facility and while still being pursued by authorities.

He is just doing his job after all, which was one strand of his family’s argument. Another is that he is “fighting for the liberty of choice” (cue more applause). Well, which is it, freedom fighter or humble tennis player?

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It was difficult to answer that question after watching his family’s press conference. They had clearly decided - on perhaps misguided PR advice, possibly from the dreaded Farage - to adopt a largely triumphalist tone. This is a day “for celebration” his brother intoned.

Fans of Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic celebrate outside the Rialto building believed to be where he was located ahead of the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia, Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Hamish Blair)

Novak, he added, was “an honest, exceptional man” who was “furthering human rights”. The tone became slightly more solemn when the brothers’ mother, Dijana, alleged Djokovic had been subjected to “torture” and “harassment” and there were even “moments when he didn’t have his mobile with him”.

All this was well and good. It was some, possibly slightly hysterical, insight into what had been going on behind closed doors in Melbourne. But it was what the family wanted to tell us, often repeated again and again. This is presumably one reason why both BBC and Sky chose to end live transmission early, thus cutting the translation service.

Dogged viewers could persist via the internet. When questions were allowed from the floor, they seemed of the soft lob variety, until one reporter, who sounded Australian, managed to ask the question that nearly everyone watching around the world was surely willing would be asked: “Is it true that on 16th December he tested positive and he knew he was positive with Covid…?”

Djordje shifts slightly uneasily on his seat. “Yes, the whole process was public and all the documents that are public are legal…,” he replied.

Andy Murray has responded to Nigel Farage, who earlier tweeted from Belgrade with the Djokovic family.

A female reporter interjects: “Was he at an event on the 17th December…?”

At this point proceedings are quickly adjourned by Djokovic's younger brother. The family file out of the room having first stood for a quick burst of the Serbian national anthem.

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“I love you each year more and more, the love affair keeps going,” a victorious Djokovic told the crowd at Melbourne last year as he cradled the trophy in his hand. It’s unlikely these feelings will be reciprocated in the equally unlikely event that he is still in the country at the start of next week.

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