Novak Djokovic: A damaged brand, a legacy under threat - where does his grand slam title chase go from here?

Srdjan Djokovic, Dijana Djokovic, Djordje Djokovic……and, erm, Nigel Farage – can you hear me Nigel Farage? - your boy took one hell of a beating.

Novak Djokovic will not defend his Australian Open title after being deported from the country. (Photo by MARTIN KEEP/AFP via Getty Images)
Novak Djokovic will not defend his Australian Open title after being deported from the country. (Photo by MARTIN KEEP/AFP via Getty Images)

Such triumphalism might be unpalatable in the circumstances.

It is, though, simply mirroring the tone adopted by Team Djokovic just a few short days ago in a packed room in Belgrade after the news that the decision to cancel his visa had been overturned.

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Djokovic, this relentless “freedom fighter”, this “honest, exceptional man”, had just secured what was hailed as his 21st grand slam victory. It turned out he had won only the first set.

The unvarnished, unvaccinated truth is that it was never likely that the Australian government would let him drive a horse and cart through their border policy. It’s very simply put on the department of home affairs’ website: “For travel in and out of Australia, travellers must provide proof of Covid-19 vaccination”. Exemptions are given in very rare cases. Admirably, being the No. 1 male tennis player in the world is not exceptional enough.

What a palaver. How many new cases of Covid has this saga generated? How much unnecessary protesting? Scores of Djokovic acolytes took to the streets of Melbourne last week and again yesterday. Even the room in Belgrade where his family members gathered for that press conference looked like the ideal conditions for transmission of a virus.

How much damage has been done to the Djokovic brand? He was never the easiest to love. Now it seems he will be pursued by even more catcalls, though not necessarily in Australia, where he might be lucky to play competitive tennis again.

The additional, perhaps heaviest blow for Djokovic is that he is now subject to a three-year ban from entering Australia. It is not quite a case of 'don’t darken our doorway again’, but it’s getting there. The 34-year-old might have already lifted the last of nine Australia Open titles. Oh what a tangled web we weave.

There have been few more fateful, ill-advised messages than the one posted by Djokovic en route to Australia on 4 January when he expressed his intention to take 2022 by the horns.

“Wishing you all health, love & joy in every moment & may you feel love & respect towards all beings on this wonderful planet,” he wrote.

It later emerged that this “love & respect” excluded journalists and photographers working for L’Equipe newspaper, with whom he had kept an appointment despite knowing he had returned a positive PCR test.

His year is unravelling like one of those sweaty towels tossed in the direction of ball boys and girls between serves.

Djokovic knew the game was up in the early hours of yesterday morning. At one point, over 80,000 viewers, over five times the capacity of the Rod Laver Arena, were tuned in to the court proceedings as it was confirmed he was being sent home to think again.

He will need to be vaccinated to enter America, where ATP Masters tournaments are scheduled in Indian Wells and Miami in March. It is a greyer area in Europe. France is destined to be the next venue for a tangle with authorities when it comes to Djokovic resuming the grand slam title chase that is his life’s great work.

His legacy may rest on something that does not come naturally to such a fierce competitor, and that’s backing down.

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