Is it right for 'whacky Novak' to be the face of Tennis?

Anti-vaccination. Healing powers of trampolines. 5G conspiracy theories. World No 1’s backing for bizarre pseudo science has the sport asking… is it right for ‘whacky Novak’ to be the face of tennis?

  • Novak Djokovic has had several public relations disasters during lockdown 
  • Some of his stranger beliefs on diet and medicine have gained attention
  • He revealed himself as an anti-vaxxer in a Facebook chat with Serbian athletes
  • His wife shared videos promoting 5G conspiracy theories in relation to Covid-19

Among the comic highlights in the long-running soap opera of Athletes In Lockdown was when Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray had a two-way chat via Instagram.

Fans were asked to send in questions, and one inquired what the first thing is that the two men do when they get up in the morning.

Djokovic, keen to make a good impression, responded earnestly: ‘Gratitude and prayer, a couple of long deep breaths, hugging my wife and running to my children. 

Novak Djokovic has lurched from one public relations disaster to another during lockdown

Murray, trying to suppress a chuckle, then gave his deadpan answer, ‘I go for a pee.’

In this exchange last month the Scot was adhering to what has emerged as best practice for these occasions: keep it simple, keep it light. Murray will end up with far fewer major titles, but when it comes to self-awareness he comes across as a Grand Slam champion to Djokovic’s struggling journeyman.

Across sport the question is increasingly asked, ‘Who has had a good lockdown?’. In the case of Djokovic he has lurched from one public relations disaster to another, most notably in his jaw-dropping Instagram chats with American nutrition entrepreneur Chervin Jafarieh, who finally appeared to have been stood down this week.

The World No 1 and Andy Murray took part in a live interview over Instagram this week

Like everyone else, the world No1 will sorely wish that he was inhabiting the parallel universe, which would have seen the climax to the clay court season begin, the Sunday start of the French Open.

Business as usual these last few weeks would have meant trawling through Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome. There would have been none of the controversy stoked up by his public extolling of ideas that could, most charitably, be described as left-field.

Djokovic would have been doing what he does best, playing his metronomically efficient tennis in the epic contest to see which man will end up being crowned the greatest ever. This fortnight we would be speculating about his chances of usurping not just the king of Roland Garros, Rafael Nadal, but also Austria’s Dominic Thiem, who is now a credible challenger.

No trio of male players will have had as much to lose by the abandonment of the clay season. It is noteworthy that, during the weeks of boredom, all three have had awkward moments via various forms of media. 

Rafael Nadal (right) has also taken some criticism for comments on the Spanish government

Nadal has taken some heat in Spain for comments on his government’s handling of the crisis, while Thiem has raised the ire of lower-ranked players by declining to get involved with relief fund projects designed to support them.

Yet neither have suffered the self-inflicted blows to their reputation as sustained by their Serbian rival.

Less popular already than his widely-adored rivals Nadal and Roger Federer, you wonder what kind of reception he will receive when international tennis finally gets to resume.

It did not have to be like this, especially as Djokovic has been extremely generous in contributing to efforts to fight the Coronavirus.

Not only has he given one million Euros to help buy such things as ventilators in his homeland, he gave a similar amount to the locality of Lombardy in Italy, which has been so badly hit.

The problem is that this can easily be overlooked, due to his escapades on social media. Or as some in the game have come to call it, Crank TV. 

The Serbian has been extremely generous in contributing to efforts to help fight coronavirus

For the lockdown has shone a light on some of Djokovic’s stranger beliefs which have developed over the past ten years, underpinned by a deep mistrust of conventional medicine. These have a particular focus on diet, and an apparent inclination towards conspiracy theories.

They have mushroomed since he began to take a deep interest in what he was eating, following stamina issues earlier in his career. He cut out wheat from his diet after going through an exercise that involved holding a slice of bread to his stomach.

More recently he admitted being distraught at undergoing conventional surgery on his elbow when natural methods had failed. There was also his association with Spanish coach Pepe Imaz, who promotes a ‘peace and love’ spiritual dimension to his training methods. Imaz was dumped in 2018 after Djokovic’s results suffered.

But it is during the current hiatus that his fertile and inquisitive mind appears to have gone into overdrive.

On April 20 he took part in a Facebook chat with other Serbian athletes in which he revealed himself as an ‘anti-vaxxer’, in response to suggestions that ATP players might have to take a protective shot, should one become available. 

The 33-year-old has caused controversy for left-field views including being an anti-vaxxer

‘Personally, I am opposed to a vaccination and I wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel. But if it becomes compulsory, what will happen?’ he asked.

This prompted a slapdown from leading Serbian government epidemiologist Predrag Kon, who asked him to desist from using his national hero status to publicise such views.

By then Djokovic’s wife, Jelena, had received a ‘False information badge’ from Instagram for sharing a video promoting 5G conspiracy theories in relation to the virus.

There was more embarrassment on May 5, when he posted a video of himself practising at his Spanish base before the government there had eased restrictions on tennis. In fairness, he was issued erroneous guidance by the club involved and Nadal fell foul of a similar misunderstanding.

Most damaging of all has been his association with close friend and self-styled wellness guru Jafarieh, with whom he has been participating in Instagram chats they labelled ‘The Self Mastery Project’  

Some of the pseudoscientific ideas they share go beyond the eccentric, and might be considered flat out dangerous.

One central theme is the supposed power of the mind over the nutritional value of food. An extreme example comes when they advance the theory that thinking positive thoughts can cleanse toxic drinking water. 

Djokovic’s wife shared a video promoting 5G conspiracy theories in relation to the virus

The healing power of trampolines has been discussed. Arguably the most cringeworthy part is where Jafarieh starts flogging the wares, infomercial-style, of his Cymbiotika enterprise. At one point Djokovic reveals he uses one of Jafareih’s ‘coated silver’ supplements, which cost nearly £100 for 50ml.

The player’s 33rd birthday came and went last week without an edition of the Self-mastery Project.

It may now quietly disappear, just like Djokovic’s proposed scheme of last month to try and help out lower ranked players.

The principle was for him and fellow top 100 players to donate to those below 250. The concept was met with a marked reluctance from his peers, who are already losing plenty from the sport’s hibernation, and want to be free to give to whatever cause they see fit. Thiem got into hot water for going public with this view, although he was hardly alone in holding that sentiment.

As President of the ATP Player Council Djokovic was acting with basically good intentions, as he often does when not getting carried away to the fringes of his own ideas.

When the sport resumes, the World No 1 is unlikely to return with his popularity enhanced

Still deeply attached to the part of the world he comes from, he will play a series of exhibitions next month around the Balkans.

He may not return to the wider stage with his popularity enhanced, whenever it is that the main tour resumes. It could be a blessing that his may yet be a sufficiently far into the distance for fans to have forgotten his sequence of lockdown mishaps.

His 33rd birthday on Friday was a reminder of the extraordinary position men’s tennis will be in when it does come back, and everything will be to play for. Only two Majors have been won by active players under the age of 33, the injury-plagued Juan Martin Del Potro and Marin Cilic – and both of them are 31.

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