COMMENT: Asking a question does not make Novak Djokovic Australian Open bad guy

Whether you love Novak Djokovic or hate him – and it certainly seems it is always one or the other – you have to admire his ability to spark debate in tennis.

This week, the Serbian’s attempts to intervene with the quarantine situation in Melbourne has fuelled a very angry response from some quarters.

The Australian government has given a very public and almost immediate hard ‘no’ to a list of so-called ‘demands’ made by Djokovic which included a plea to shorten the quarantine with more regular testing, allowing players to at least see their coaches, and high quality exercise equipment and food to be provided in rooms.

Meanwhile, the Australian media has responded angrily, with 9 News in Melbourne especially visceral in their reporting of Djokovic and his apparently unforgivably nefarious desire to help.

Of course, the issue for many, you could probably even say most, is that they do not believe he is trying to help the right people. After all, when a country’s safety during a global pandemic is at stake, who cares about bored tennis players?

Safety must, and has, come first. There is a legitimate argument to be had over whether or not the Australian Open should be going ahead at all, but now it is, all safety measures should be maintained.

That, though, is not the real problem here. The real problem is Novak Djokovic being vilified for simply asking the question.

And that’s all it was. There was no advice offered and no demands made. By Craig Tiley’s own admission, the letter he received from Djokovic contained no more than suggestions.

It is important to be absolutely clear, though: ‘Demands’ is a word that the original source for the story – Spanish tennis blog Punto de Break – attached to Djokovic’s actions.

Djokovic le exige a Tiley igualdad para todos los jugadores, the headline reads. The word demand (exige) is repeated again in the main story. As soon as the story gains circulation in the mainstream English-speaking media, suddenly it is presented en-masse as an inarguable fact that demands were made, and absolutely no amount of reason will dissuade anyone who really wants to believe it.

Novak Djokovic practice London

That’s fine, of course. People are free to make up their own minds.

Are we really going to pretend, though, that this is not just the continuation of a persistent trend of people simply choosing the unkindest interpretation of anything Djokovic does because it serves a pre-conceived dislike of him?

Must we constantly play along with some strange notion that Djokovic is not routinely denied the benefit of the doubt that literally any other player in the world would receive?

It is so ingrained in people now that even the arguments for choosing to deny Djokovic the benefit of the doubt over this issue are rooted in the stubborn commitment to denying him the benefit of the doubt in the past.

‘He ignored Covid safety advice for the Adria Tour’ apparently. Well, to an extent, but the Adria Tour did not contravene any safety advice and regulations that existed in the countries that staged it.

‘Djokovic is an anti-vaxxer! Who is he to tell us how to tackle Covid!’ Well, he has literally said “I am not against vaccination of any kind,” and he hasn’t told anyone how to tackle Covid. Aside from those two very minor flaws, it’s a solid argument.

Novak Djokovic thumbs up

It is certainly curious to wonder, is it not, why, if people are so desperate to drag up any mistake, half-truth, and non-truth about Djokovic and his actions regarding Covid-19, his donations of €1million worth of ventilators to Serbian hospitals and €1million to Italy’s Covid relief fund are so entirely and consistently overlooked.

Obviously no one is saying anyone is wrong for disagreeing with Djokovic and his concerns for his colleagues in quarantine. I am not even sure that I do to be perfectly honest. It’s a complex issue and one of which very few, Djokovic included, will have a full command of the facts.

However, disagreement and vilification do not have to go hand-in-hand. Unless, of course, you’ve already committed yourself to the latter, and there-in lies the root of this particular issue.

Because let’s be clear: What Djokovic is guilty of here is not an act of ego. He didn’t go through the press or make a big song and dance about it. He’s not guilty of entitlement, either, considering he stands to gain nothing from anything he has requested. He is certainly not guilty of ‘making demands’ simply because a Spanish headline writer decided it would generate more clicks if he was.

All he is guilty of is being Novak Djokovic, and as far as many are concerned, that’s all they’ll ever need to actively choose to vilify him for anything they possibly can.

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