We have no way of knowing whether or not Mr. Novak Djokovic, Serbia’s global tennis talisman, would have won the Australian Open this year. If he did, he would have brought his grand slam collection to 21, the highest in the world. But it seems that either of his major rivals Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer who are at the 20 grand slam level may breast the tape before him, a hard court impresario. If that happens, he has no one to blame but himself. Here are the facts: Djokovic, 34, tested positive for COVID-19 on December 16, 2021. He was notified of the positive test the next day but he did not isolate. Rather, he went out to attend an interview and a photo shoot. He travelled to Australia for this year’s Australian Open and the authorities there, worried about the rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, cancelled his visa for “health and good order grounds on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so.” He appealed for a judicial review of the decision but three Federal Court of Australia judges unanimously dismissed his application on January 16 with costs preventing his participation in this year’s Australian Open. He left Australia that night without hitting a ball with his racket. His iconoclasm had come back to bite him. He has made an unforced error not on the tennis court but outside it.
Djokovic, who started playing tennis at age four, has grown over the years to become the number one male tennis player in the world today, leading in winnings and earnings among his peers. If he had won this year’s Australian Open, he would have earned the tag of the greatest tennis player of all time. His record is intimidating. He has won the Australian Open nine times, French Open twice, Wimbledon six times and US Open three times, bringing his total grand slam haul to 20. Coincidentally, it was at Australia that he won his first grand slam title in 2008. Since then he has established his authority as the grandmaster of the hard court. In confrontations with his three closest rivals Nadal, Federer and Andy Murray. Djokovic has been the leader. Out of 58 battles with Nadal, he won 30; out of 50 fights with Federer, he cornered 27 and out of 36 confrontations with Murray, Djokovic nicked 25. His two younger brothers Marko and Djordie are also professional tennis players. So, you can say that he belongs to a family where tennis has become the staple diet.
At 6’2” tall, Djokovic has proved to be an exceptionally gifted and aggressive baseline player whose serve is the most potent weapon of his trade. He has a high court coverage span and a high agility as well as mobility. His athleticism is simply surreal. Off the court, he speaks five languages: English, Serbian, French, German and Italian. This mastery of multiple languages makes him a global citizen who has a familiarity with several cultures but he remains in several ways a different animal who behaves very often differently and who preserves religiously his acute sense of individuality. He eats vegetarian, plant-based diet with a bit of fish sometimes because he suffers from gluten intolerance and he wants to be as close to nature as possible. He subjects himself to a full hour of meditation in order to gain serenity. He says he is “not a fan of surgeries or medications.” Rather, he wants to be as natural as possible. He also believes that “human bodies are self-healing mechanisms.” This is a dubious thesis that has led him to the problem in Australia. Many people saw his problem in Australia coming. In 2020, during the lockdown, he organised a tennis competition, against the advice of the Tennis Association. The tournament brought in its wake a huge spread of COVID-19 that affected him and many others. He learnt no lesson from the spread. He stayed defiant despite the fact that the world’s leading authority on health, the World Health Organisation (WHO), has informed the world that the COVID-19 pandemic exists and it kills. Even beyond that it is well known that all the major powers in the world – United States, Russia, China, Britain, Germany – with cutting-edge technology, have also confirmed the existence of the pandemic and their greatest scientists are in the laboratories working day and night to bring help to the world. Djokovic’s iconoclastic behaviour on the COVID-19 pandemic is inexplicable, though not excusable. There are people like that who make their own rules and live by them. Iconoclasm is deviance, the playground of the sceptic and the cynic. With an iconoclast, nothing is sacred. Everything is denouncable. They are the real non-believers. Some societies may tolerate deviance but they do not allow them to become the new normal. That is what Djokovic sought to do. He failed. That is what Governor Yahaya Bello of Kogi State wanted to do on the COVID-19 pandemic but he failed because Nigerians would not tolerate his non-scientific iconoclastic views on the pandemic. Now he wants to be President of Nigeria. I wonder what weird things he will seek to do in the unlikely event of his becoming the landlord at Aso Villa. The immediate past American President, Mr. Donald Trump, apparently did not believe that COVID-19 exists; he did not believe in wearing a face mask and when he caught it we all saw him wearing a face mask on his way to a hospital where he was to receive treatment. Did that experience teach him something? Maybe, maybe not.
Iconoclasm is a dangerous disease. It means you make your own rules and you live by them. Such self-made rules are usually in conflict with those made and approved by society or appropriate authorities. When that occurs, there is a clash, a collision, and in that collision iconoclasm always gets a black eye and a bloody nose. Society is often the winner. In Australia, society won, Djokovic lost. Why does iconoclasm lose? It is because it is ego-driven and ignorance-driven. It is driven by superior ignorance, not superior knowledge.
Some Nigerian musicians are striving to make iconoclasm the new normal. They have a string of baby mamas all over the place. They impregnate several young girls and then move on, leaving them to pick the pieces of their broken youth as single mothers. They move on to the next one and the next one, flaunting each of them on the Internet and causing incalculable harm to the young mother’s life. They are struggling to make this baby-mama-ism the new normal, they have failed. Our society, every society, frowns at such randy behaviour. They may be rich and famous but these do not confer decency or propriety on baby-mama-ism.
Djokovic made an unforced error by refusing to take his jabs. That error has deprived us of the opportunity of knowing whether or not he would have received history’s standing ovation or not. Not to worry. Even though the hard court is his favourite turf, he still has several opportunities later in the year to show his class at the French Open, Wimbledon and US Open. That is if his iconoclasm will let him take the jab and become the exceptional hero he would like to become. A celebrity is someone who occupies an office that comes with responsibilities. It is not enough to embrace the fame and pocket the money that comes from exertions that have given someone celebrity status. He must show that he is deserving of society’s shower of affection on him and patronage of his service. He must show that he is a leader whose activities are deserving of emulation by the young. So, a celebrity is an invisible mentor to a number of mentees he doesn’t know, doesn’t see, but who learn from him by long distance.
Djokovic did not appear to appreciate the responsibility that his celebrity status assigns to him, the responsibility for showcasing propriety, for doing what is right, for abhorring what is wrong, for leading by example. It is a very heavy responsibility but by choosing to be successful he asked for it. It comes with the territory. It is not a responsibility that must be discharged perfunctorily. It is one that must be discharged faithfully despite the inconveniences. The Australian episode is a lesson not only to Djokovic but to all persons in the public eye who receive the adulation of the public. That adulation must come with reciprocity, if they are to continue to merit that adulation. That reciprocity means an adherence to propriety because it is propriety, not iconoclasm, that leads to a better society.