Djokovic’s Choice (Part 1)

In this two-part article, Part 1 begins with the backdrop of the recent controversy surrounding tennis star Novak Djokovic’s decision to not get vaccinated. Part 2 gives my opinion on why his decision deserves thoughtful examination and ultimately, represents a choice for freedom over tyranny. If you already know the story and would like to jump to my opinion, go here.

Novak, Champion of Fitness and Discipline

Despite facing enormous pressure from all sides to take a vaccine, Novak Djokovic remains a staunch advocate for bodily autonomy. Some believe he should take the jab to show that he’s for the community, not only himself. Certainly, by taking a jab he would avoid current Covid19-related restrictions in international travel that have barred him from playing certain tournaments. Yet he chooses to remain unvaccinated out of the conviction that such a decision must be his choice, as well as his thought that the vaccines may hurt rather than help his health. Is Djokovic valiant and principled, or does his choice to not vaccinate put others at risk and set a poor example for a public figure?

Novak Djokovic is considered one of the greatest tennis champions of all time and is certainly a premiere athlete. Until very recently he spent a record 373 weeks at number one in the ATP rankings (surpassing Federer’s previous record of 310 weeks). He’s a multiple winner of the Laureus Prize, awarded to the single greatest athlete in the world in a given year, and has a winning record against his greatest rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. He is the only person to have twice won all nine ATP Masters Tournaments, the so-called Career Golden Masters. He’s got 21 Grand Slams under his belt, just one behind Nadal. Though now 35, he’s still at the peak of his game, having just completed an impressive 2022 Wimbledon win. Superior conditioning means he likely has years of playing and winning ahead.

One may ask how his winning record and physical condition relate to the debate over his unvaccinated status. Detractors argue that his superstardom does not preclude Djokovic from keeping the rules all must follow to protect public health. He’s free to make a personal vaccine choice, they say, but must accept the consequences of his decision. Yet a critical reason Djokovic has reached such heights is his intense commitment to taking care of his body. Perhaps he’s learned a thing or two about maintaining good health?

Djokovic explains his Covid vaccine refusal

In a detailed interview with the BBC (video excerpt below) Djokovic articulately laid out his reasons for not taking a Covid-19 vaccine. He explained that per his research he does not fully trust the current vaccines to preserve his elite condition. His career and success have been in part built on maintaining peak health and strength, which involves carefully scrutinizing everything he puts in his body. He is not certain the vaccines won’t jeopardize his good health rather than maintain it.

Novak Djokovic breaks silence over Covid vaccine refusal – BBC News
Not an Anti-Vaxxer

It’s important to note that Djokovic has not been anti-vaccine. He respects the fact that vaccines have been the largest part of the effort to end the pandemic and doesn’t tell anyone else to not take them. He says he could change his mind about taking one in the future, and remains open to new information. But for him, the bottom line is that “The principles of decision making on my body are more important than any title, or anything else.” Of course, he wants to continue playing the sport he loves, yet is willing to stand on principle, miss tournaments, and even lose the chance to preserve his tennis legacy because he believes freedom of choice over what goes into your body is critical. His underlying reasoning seems to be that if vaccines may hurt rather than help, perhaps they are not beneficial for him or anyone else.

Djokovic is willing to stand on principle, miss tournaments, and even lose the chance to preserve his tennis legacy, because he believes freedom of choice over what goes into your body is critical.

The Australian Open Controversy

As the 2021 defending champion and a 9-time winner of the Australian Open, Djokovic certainly wanted to compete in what he calls his favorite tournament. But he understood Australia was not allowing unvaccinated persons to enter the country, and that his choice to not be vaccinated would keep him out. He was fully prepared to skip this important Grand Slam event.

But in December 2021 players received a letter from Tennis Australia that said a Covid-19 infection in the past six months, together with an accompanying letter from a doctor, could qualify as a valid medical exemption. Since coincidentally he had contracted and recovered from Covid-19 around this time, Djokovic completed the necessary paperwork and applied for this exemption, which was granted. This allowed him to enter Australia without vaccination or quarantine as he also obtained needed travel clearances, per court documents.

That’s when the trouble began. Upon entry into the country, Djokovic’s visa was canceled by the Australian government and he was taken to a temporary detention facility at the Park Hotel in Melbourne, where he was intensely questioned. An investigation ensued into whether Djokovic had followed proper rules related to travel after testing positive for Covid-19. After being held in detention for a few days Djokovic and his team, at last, got their day in an Australian court. The judge who reviewed his case and paperwork reversed the cancellation of his visa and ordered his immediate release from detention. Djokovic headed to the practice courts. But still, the fight was not over.

Soon thereafter on January 14 Australia’s immigration minister Alex Hawke again revoked Djokovic’s visa, saying “it was in the public interest to do so.” Djokovic subsequently lost a final court appeal and was deported from Australia. He now faces a potential three-year ban from the country.

Public Response to Djokovic’s Predicament

Tracking the saga on Twitter, I was somewhat surprised to see many vehemently agreeing with the Australian government’s decision to deport Djokovic. They viewed Djokovic as a spoiled rich guy acting above the rules, and as someone who displayed reckless behavior in the days following his Covid-19 infection. Some without evidence went as far as claiming he’d not been infected at all, and was merely claiming this as a deceptive ploy to get around restrictions.

Djokovic released a public statement on January 12th via Instagram to clear up what he called misconceptions surrounding his actions following testing positive for Covid-19 in December 2021. He attended a basketball game on December 14 after which it was reported many tested positive for Covid-19. Though he felt no symptoms he decided to get tested with both a rapid antigen and a PCR test. Testing negative on the rapid test and still feeling no symptoms, on December 17 he attended a scheduled awards ceremony for kids. Only after this event did he learn the PCR test showed he was Covid-19 positive. The following day he was in Belgrade to complete a longstanding photoshoot commitment. He later regretted this error in judgment, saying on reflection it would have been wiser to have rescheduled, but he hadn’t wanted to let the photographer down. He noted that he was masked and socially distanced throughout the shoot.

Deported for Politics, not Public Health

I believe Djokovic indeed made some mistakes after testing positive, but his explanation of the events is plausible and believable. There’s no evidence he was intentionally trying to deceive, nor that he was being reckless. He apologized for an error in behavior. From the beginning, he has only sought to remain private about his vaccine status, not be an anti-vaccine advocate. When asked about vaccines he has stated he believes in the freedom to choose. So the Australian government’s deportation decision was highly political and focused on its agenda of vaccine compliance. It was not based on safeguarding public health, since a fit and healthy Djokovic with natural immunity posed no actual public health threat!

Their ruling read, in part,

“Djokovic as an iconic world tennis star may influence people of all ages, young or old, but perhaps especially the young and the impressionable, to emulate him. This is not fanciful; it does not need evidence.”

From the Australian three-panel judges’ ruling

But this allegation does need evidence! The Australian judges’ ruling assumed compliance with the country’s vaccine agenda was the all-important issue. Yet like every other human being on the planet, Djokovic is free to choose what to put into his body. Australians and others around the globe are free to emulate him in this or not! Certainly, Australia failed to provide any evidence Djokovic was leading an intentional anti-vaccine campaign. How convenient for them to claim “no evidence was needed.”

Therefore in part 2, I further explore why these kinds of government decisions are arbitrary, authoritarian, illogical, irrational, and unscientific- and why Djokovic’s choice matters for all who value freedom.

Portrait of Novak Djokovic taken for L’Equipe interview on December 18


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