“At times when I see the aftermath of things, I do tend to ask myself if I should just sit back and enjoy my benefits instead of paying attention to other people's struggles...”
Novak Djokovic might be wishing he opted to sit back on this occasion.
His efforts to secure improved quarantine conditions for some of his fellow tennis players have seen him become the villain in Victoria. Nick Kyrgios has branded him a “tool”. Former Australian tennis player Sam Groth has accused him of being “selfish”. While others have complained about having to wash their own hair and compared hotel quarantine to “prison with wifi”, Djokovic has drawn most of the ire in Victoria.
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Primarily it’s because he issued a list of ‘demands’ to Tennis Australia that asked for such things as shortening the isolation period for the 72 players in hotel quarantine and providing private houses for players with tennis courts.
Except they weren’t ‘demands’, rather ‘suggestions’, according to Tennis Australia chief executive Craig Tiley. And they weren’t his suggestions alone, rather they were “gathered from other players in a group chat”.
“He is understanding what two weeks of lockdown means,” added Tiley.
The suggestions may have been met with a “definite no”, but you don’t ask you don’t get, right? And negotiations have to start somewhere. Presumably the players who made suggestions were keen for Djokovic to put them to Tennis Australia to see if anything at all could be done.
Is it fair to criticise him for this? Perhaps he should have shown more tact and considered if asking for private houses with tennis courts was a bit ill-advised in the midst of a global pandemic, especially when thousands of Victorians are unable to return to their own homes from other states.
But as he said in a statement on Wednesday, he was “brainstorming potential improvements”. This wasn’t a request to find 72 private houses with tennis courts.
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It is also fair to wonder whether the public reaction would have been as fierce if it was Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal making the ‘demands’. Or if they would have even been termed ‘demands’.
In his statement, Djokovic explained that he could have sat back and done nothing, but instead he tried to use his “position of privilege” to help as much as possible.
Part of that may be his feeling of responsibility as co-leader of the Professional Tennis Players’ Association, the breakaway group which was set up last summer with a strong focus on giving a voice to lower-ranked players.
But it’s also worth remembering that Djokovic had nothing to gain personally if the suggestions were accepted. He’s in Adelaide rather than Melbourne, where the quarantine rules are different.
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This was another point he raised with Tiley; that not all players are getting equal opportunities to prepare for the Australian Open. Not only are some unable to practise due to being confined to their hotel room, but several of the top players are in Adelaide rather than Melbourne, with quarantine rules that are less strict. Djokovic pushed to be allowed to quarantine in Melbourne instead because of the ‘unfairness’ of the situation.
He says he chose to do something despite the “challenging consequences and misunderstandings”. The problem for the world No 1 is that his public image – which has never earned him the adoration of Federer and Nadal - has taken quite a few hits over the last year.
Last summer he was panned for organising the Adria Tour, an event held in the Balkans that was attended by fans, where social distancing was not a thing and several players, including Djokovic, tested positive for Covid-19.
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He also suggested he would be opposed to vaccination if it was required to play tennis again, featured in a bizarre video where he agreed you could change the molecular structure of water with your emotions, and was then disqualified from the US Open for hitting a ball towards a line-judge.
He’s also rankled some with his formation of the PTPA, which has been opposed by his more-beloved rivals, Federer and Nadal.
What he has done wrong since landing in Adelaide is not wearing a mask when in a shuttle bus, but the backlash towards him has not been focused on that. Instead he has become the target for those who are angry about players complaining about their quarantine conditions and those who are angry that the Australian Open is taking place.
While he has certainly made some ill-judged decisions and comments over the last 12 months, Djokovic has every right to be annoyed and upset over the criticism this time around.
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