World No. 6 in men’s tennis Novak Djokovic will not play in this year’s US Openwill start on Monday in New York because he remains unvaccinated against COVID-19. Sports IllustratedJon Wertheim and Chris Almeida examine the star’s decision, what it means for his pursuit of the all-time major league wins record and how it affects his legacy.
Chris Almeida: Here we are at noon ET on Thursday, a week before the start of the US Open main draw, and three-time winner Novak Djokovic, who was runner-up last year, has withdrawn from the tournament. We kind of knew this was coming: if you’re not vaccinated and you’re not a US citizen, you can’t enter the country. Djokovic has not played any major events in the United States. But still, this is a rather troubling development. And it would have been shocking a year ago.
Seven months ago we were having all these same conversations: Will he really cost himself an inheritance because he is suspicious of vaccines? Well, now it looks like it will.
Jon Wertheim: This, to me, is very similar to Serena’s retirement announcement two weeks ago. You knew it was going to happen. Being formalized seems annoying, but completely unsurprising. And I think you just stand back and … I think we’re past the point of being kind of anti-vaccine now. Right? It’s more about the idea that a guy who’s 35 years old and on top of history, and has talked openly and, I think, admirably about how retiring with most degrees is the ultimate goal. How would he put himself out of contention for two of the four majors in his 35-year-old year? It is simply extraordinary.
And I think we’ll be talking about this for many, many years. Part of this is sports records. But part of that has to do with broader perception. And you know, who, without turning this into referendums on vaccines and appropriate behavior during global crises … Someone just wrote to me, and I think that’s a very good point. He said: At this point, how much of this has to do with Djokovic – does he really believe, since we have billions of people who have received this vaccine with no ill effects, including tennis players, that there is something wrong with them? And how much of that is now just about an athlete’s mentality of doubling down instead of conceding defeat? Is it the same stubborn generation that makes athletes great at their day jobs growing their heads this other way?
CA: I do not know. I mean, I always remember reading a story about him, I think, around 2018. He had that brief period where he went away after winning the Novak Slam in 2015–16. After that he did not win for a while and it turned out that he had problems with his elbow. So he had an operation. And he does not believe in surgery. It is said that he was so upset about what he had done that he cried for days about it. But that surgery turned his career around. And this was always very annoying to me, because after he saw that this procedure had helped him, he was still upset. Clearly, the strength of what he believes is pretty anomalous, even for athletes who are such contrarians on public health issues. But now he has removed himself from two majors where he would have been the runaway favorite.
JW: Let’s not forget he won the previous major! He is on a seven-game hitting streak. The problem is: in social media, at some level, there is a completely contemporary fact model. You will find thousands and thousands of people saying: You are a maverick; you are a hero; you are a man of conviction. Other players are sheep. There is plenty of positive reinforcement. So who knows? I mean, he might think that’s a great act of moral courage. There’s certainly plenty of feedback, right?
I think everybody’s arguing about the United States travel policy and the double standards and Fauci and the CDC and I just think based on it, I just step back: This guy is on the cusp of history and this is someone—I’m about to end Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak—someone is going to set one of sports’ greatest standards, and he’s voluntarily taking himself out of the running. You see all kinds of players in tennis go to great extremes to play these majors. It’s what kept Serena Williams going at 40. And it is what prevented other players from withdrawing. Andy Murray has a hip of metal. Did you see that documentary about what he does every morning to get back there? The idea that someone misses a major when they’re in perfect shape, when they won the last one, when they want to win more… to have that kind of attitude is really remarkable.
CA: And this is not the end of it. As far as we know, this is also moving to the next greatness. He could be banned from Australia for the next three years.
JW: Yeah, and then he goes to French, which is his least successful major, and suddenly he’s 36. For all the thought exercises and all the hypothesizing about this goat race, no one would have ever thought that it might actually happen that one of the contenders didn’t put himself in the race because he didn’t want a vaccination that billions of people they had done it without side effects.
CA: I mean, it might be a dumb thing to say at this point, but I think he’s still going to get away with it. Still, though, he’s knocked maybe three wins off his total, whatever that ends up being.
JW: I think you are right. If you’re tripping over him now, I’d say he retires with most of the degrees, but for so many people—and it’s not just social media chatter—I see it in interviews and I see it in the way that as a casual fan talks about it: He’s the anti-vax guy. I mean, he’s the Kyrie Irving of tennis.
And I don’t know if he realizes the kind of damage to his image. Even if he retires with most majors, I think this is something, with the casual fan, that will stick.
CA: I don’t want to exaggerate too much here. But isn’t that the average American fan?
JW: I do not know. I mean, at the French Open the fans were 95–5 for Nadal. I mean, I think you’re right. I think in the US and Australia it is probably highlighted.
CA: Anyway, now who do you think will win?
JW: Carlos Alcaraz.
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