January 7, 2022 - 5:56pm

The public embrace of Novak Djokovic was nice while it lasted. Now it’s back to controversy, complete with media tut-tutting that the Serb is setting a bad example. After a public outcry, and some thunderous grandstanding from Australian PM Scott Morrison, the Serb’s visa, for which he had obtained a vaccine exemption owing to prior Covid infection, was rejected upon landing in Australia this week, with the government announcing that it would deport the world No. 1 (Djokovic has been allowed to stay pending the result of an emergency appeal). “No one is above these rules,” Morrison solemnly announced.

Novak, of course, is exactly the sort of wellness eccentric who’s become public enemy number one under Covid. He’s a holistic health nut with a soft spot for positive psychology and wellness fads that might be generously described as “woo.” There’s his famous gluten- and dairy-free, don’t-call-it vegan diet, which he was inspired to adopt in 2010, after Serb nutritionist and “energetic medicine” practitioner Igor Cetojevic determined the star was gluten-intolerant by asking him to hold a slice of bread against his stomach. There’s the marathon yoga sessions. The biofeedback devices. The hyperbaric chambers. The algae smoothies. The Bosnian energy pyramids. The wolf energy. The “energetical transformation” of polluted water into healing water. It’s Joe Rogan filtered through Orthodox mysticism and sports-psychology Zen.  

But however dubiously Novak arrived at his views, here, he has the science on his side. He has immunity from a previous Covid-19 infection, which is good enough for a Covid certificate in the EU and means that he is at least as, if not more, protected from catching and spreading the virus as are vaccinated players. Regarding his own health, he is young, at 34, and not merely healthy but one of the healthier men on the planet. Even without natural immunity, his risk from the virus would be minimal; with it, he is probably more at risk of being struck by lightning, getting crushed to death by a vending machine, or having an adverse reaction to the vaccine itself. 

Almost no-one, however, is even pretending that this is really a health issue. It’s a question of Novak “following the rules,” regardless of whether those rules make any sense, and of the Australians justifying to themselves their own tremendously strict Covid regime, even as Omicron is making a mockery of its ostensible goal — a state of “Covid-zero”. Is Novak really harming anybody? No. Still, he must abandon his “stubbornness,” according to Boris Becker.

In this sense, the Djokovic controversy is a case study in how the rationale for strict Covid measures in places like Australia and American blue cities has evolved over the course of the pandemic. Once ostensibly science-based measures to stop the spread and eradicate the disease, they are now theatrical rituals intended to convey seriousness, reassure the compliant that their sacrifices have not been in vain, and punish the noncompliant, even — and one might say especially — in cases where their noncompliance is perfectly rational from the perspective of public and individual health.  

Novak’s fans, especially in Serbia, have long felt that he doesn’t get a fair shake — that he’s routinely victimised by the irrational biases and superstitions of the outside world. In this case, assuming Australia goes ahead and denies him the opportunity to compete for a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title, they’ll be proven right.   

Park MacDougald is Deputy Literary Editor for Tablet