January 11, 2022 - 10:24am

Countless media articles in recent days have attempted to portray Novak Djokovic as a bone-headed anti-vaxxer or a whimsical voodoo nutritionist. But the complex pyramid of beliefs that he espouses is deeply held and began long before the Covid era.

It is well known that the young Djokovic narrowly avoided NATO bombs falling out of the sky during the Kosovan war, but perhaps more salient is how his response to the lingering communist mindset in Yugoslavia shaped his attitude towards authority. As he writes in his nutrition guide-cum-memoir, Serve to Win, in communist Yugoslavia there was “ only one way of doing things”:

You are taught not to be open-minded
If you are not open-minded, then you can be easily manipulated. People at the top are very invested in making sure we do not question what we are told to believe. Whether it’s a communist ruler, or for many of us, the rules of the food and pharmaceutical industries, people at the top understand that most of us are led by fear.
- Novak Djokovic, Serve to Win

The subsequent collapse of communist Yugoslavia into bloody civil war further highlighted to Nole the dangers of reflexively following government authorities and encouraged a more free-thinking approach on a variety of topics. This anti-authoritarian feeling is widespread in his family, and over the course of this pandemic, has drawn some of them to crankish theories about 5G networks, but also to defensible concerns about vaccine mandates. As his brother Djordje insisted to Nigel Farage on GB News last night, the Djokovic family is not ‘anti-vax’, but supports the right to choose.

For Novak, this attitude translated into early opposition to the Covid vaccine. Although he subsequently softened his stance to say that he wanted to have an “open mind” and “the option to choose what’s best for my body,” he has criticised the media for misrepresenting his views, accusing it of producing “propaganda”. There is “less and less free journalism and free information,” he said, “more and more is controlled by one or two sources, so that propaganda is spread that is beneficial to the elite or a specific group of people.” 

There are other strands of belief that must be understood, most significantly his deep Orthodox Christian faith. During the Kosovo war, Djokovic talks of an epiphany during his childhood: “once you realize that you are truly powerless, a certain sense of freedom takes over
to truly accept your own powerlessness is liberating”. His faith makes him stubborn on matters of integrity: if he is not convinced something is the morally right thing to do, he will not do it. As Djokovic puts it: “Before I am an athlete, I am an Orthodox Christian”. 

Finally, it is worth noting the streak of Serbian nationalism that emerged from the country’s turbulent history. Djokovic’s opposition to Kosovo independence is perhaps not in itself remarkable, but more controversial is his meeting with a commander of the “Drina Wolves”, a unit that took part in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, and his embrace by the Bosnian Serb nationalist leader Milorad Dodik, whose separatist tendencies are currently at risk of destabilising the peace accords that ended the Bosnian conflict some 20 years ago. 

Djokovic’s worldview is a peculiar mix of scepticism and faith, hippie-esque allegiance to alternative methods and deep conservatism — but it’s a combination that feels more and more common, and highly relevant to the world in 2022.

is UnHerd’s Newsroom editor.