by James Billot
Tuesday, 11
January 2022
Explainer
10:24

The roots of Novak Djokovic’s vaccine hesitancy

The athlete's worldview was built from a lifetime of politics and faith
by James Billot
Credit: Getty

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.

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Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago

I warmed to Djokovic on seeing this video of The Federer Backhand Boys singing – me being a enormous Federer fan https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1b9INDFYfI
I warmed to him more when he came out swinging in 2020 and held a tennis tournament – by that stage it was already known that the disease particularly targeted old and fat…erm overweight people. We knew where we were after all. He actually dared to live!
Now I love the man for transcending the difficulties in his life, for his enormous athletic ability and work ethic, for his sense of humour, his ability to shrug off the haters, his eccentricity, his principles and his charitable contributions.
I have also been impressed by the spirited push back from the Serbian people, so much so that I think 10 Serbians arriving on a rubber duck could overthrow the entire pusillanimous Australian nation. Disclaimer – I exclude the minority of Australians who show some defiance and backbone.

Last edited 5 months ago by Lesley van Reenen
Kate Marris
Kate Marris
5 months ago

Absolutely

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago
Reply to  Kate Marris

I have corrected all my typos… oops!

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago

I so loved the old system whereby you could see who voted up and down. Would love to see the person who downvoted my comment that I corrected my typos.

Peta Seel
Peta Seel
5 months ago

The comments in the Speccie, run by Disqus, do allow for that. As a result there are very, very few downvotes! I never vote anyone down, I engage or ignore 🙂

Last edited 5 months ago by Peta Seel
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago
Reply to  Peta Seel

I sometimes downvote if I disagree with an opinion but don’t have time to post a comment. I would be happy for the person to see my name.
Maybe I am being downvoted by Australians 🙂

Last edited 5 months ago by Lesley van Reenen
J Bryant
J Bryant
5 months ago

I upvoted you for your attention to punctuation and grammar. By the way, what’s your position on the Oxford comma? 🙂

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I don’t use it!

Andrea X
Andrea X
5 months ago

I wondered that myself. I suspect it was a mis-hit.

Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
5 months ago

Well put!
I don’t know the man. But like you said … I watched him in 2021 summer and I saw a resilience, like he was saying- hate me all you want, I am staying true to my principles. I was ambivalent before but I became a fan.
Novak’s fight with the timid, petrified Australians is very very important, to all of us, esp to us who saw how quickly the things went out of control in 2020. I hope he wins but even if he doesn’t, he has already won on many more important levels.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
5 months ago

To see someone say, “hate me all you want, I am staying true to my principles”, and think it therefore makes that person a good human being, is to be in serious moral error.
Hitler and his close followers stayed true to their principles to the end. The problem is, their principles were satanic. Evil.
It is not principles per se that we need, but good principles!
And please! Do you think you could refrain from stupid, silly, cheap putdowns like “timid, petrified Australians”?
No one here is timid or petrified. That’s just a projection out onto other people of your own fears. An act of intellectual cowardice on your part.
People here have different opinions. Many have to do with differing ideology, left or right. Others relate to ethnic background. Some can be traced to religion. Many more just want a quiet life, so would troublemaking stirrers like you please piss off!

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
5 months ago
Reply to  Penelope Lane

Fair enough

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
5 months ago
Reply to  Penelope Lane

The Australians (Ok, that is a simplification…)

seem to me to be projecting their anger about own voluntary subjection (on the whole) to an over the top bio security state, onto Djokovic. He has had covid, poses no medical risk whatever to any Australian and complied with Victoria rules. He has been told one thing and then another for purely political reasons.

Last edited 5 months ago by Andrew Fisher
David Bell
David Bell
5 months ago

It’s their country and he should respect their rules, not just demand entry.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
5 months ago

I like his style of tennis and his attitude to the sport. But this article, and the reaction of Serbians, reminds me of the extreme fascism that many Serbians follow. If you’re a big fan of minorities being massacred then I guess you can put a pin on that and laud Serbian nationalism.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
5 months ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Thankyou for injecting an element of realism into this deranged discussion.
The problem appears to be that those making such clever comments are entirely ignorant of the real horrors underlying Serbian nationalism.

David Bell
David Bell
5 months ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

I don’t like his attitude at all. He has a giant chip on his shoulder like many Serbs and he has no friends among his fellow tennis players. His petulance in demanding entry to the country hosting the championship hasn’t endeared him to most Australians, either.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
5 months ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Why just pick on just the Serbians? It’s a pretty common if horrific characteristic of many nationalisms in certain situations, including Croat, German, Turkish, Chinese, German (natch), US (the native Americans) and not least the Australians, whom you may recall carried out what I believe may be the only 100% complete genocide of the native Tasmanians, of whom none survive.

Last edited 5 months ago by Andrew Fisher
Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
5 months ago

I warmed to Djokovic…Now I love the man…
Did you warm to Djokovic over ‘his meeting with a commander of the “Drina Wolves”, a unit that took part in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre’?
Do you think the Srebrenica massacre displayed an admirable Serbian “defiance and a backbone”? Do you just love the personalities of those who murdered defenceless teenage boys and grandfathers? Are you impressed by the characters of their fellow travellers?
I wonder why you omitted to praise that aspect of Djokovic’s character.
Do you know anything of the black occult brotherhoods that have been fomenting ethnic trouble in the Balkans for centuries?
…impressed by the spirited pushback from the SerbIan people … I think 10 Serbians arriving on a rubber duck could overthrow the entire pusillanimous Australian nation.
I repeat my question: do you admire the Serbian people’s ‘spirited pushback’ at Srebrenica?
Does it make you feel powerful and strong to create an imaginary 10 Serbians arriving on a boat and overthrowing the Australian nation?
Are you aware that we have communities of immigrant Serbians and Croats and Kosovans living here in Australia? Do you know the history of the postwar bombings in the city of Geelong, in the Australian state of Victoria, in the 1950s, when these communities of ex-Yugoslavians took to the streets to play out their imported ethnic hatreds and violence?
Well I do, Lesley van Reenen, because I personally lived through it all as a secondary school student. As the school day began, we kids used to have a daily check around to see who had bombed who the previous night, who had been hurt, what people feared would happen next, what the government was going to do about it, why our security agency ASIO was eagerly cracking down on leftwing troublemakers while seemingly allowing the rightwing terrorists a free go.
I would like you to try to understand, please, that your smart-Alec, ignorant, throwaway comments have a real impact on people’s lives. Try to read up on Australia’s history before launching your ill-informed opinionation onto these pages.

Last edited 5 months ago by Penelope Lane
George Glashan
George Glashan
5 months ago
Reply to  Penelope Lane

Try to read up on Australia’s history before launching your ill-informed opinionation onto these pages.

lack of knowledge never stops you from posting so why should Lesley have to pass a reading test first?

Last edited 5 months ago by George Glashan
David Bell
David Bell
5 months ago
Reply to  George Glashan

Would you care to refute Penelope’s points with some facts? It seems she has direct experience of Balkan rivalries among the communities in Australia, dating from her childhood.

George Glashan
George Glashan
5 months ago
Reply to  David Bell

David have you done the required reading on Australian history before posting? or did Penny give you a hall pass to post?
im not interested in self-appointed gate keepers.

David Bell
David Bell
5 months ago
Reply to  George Glashan

Except when you are gate-keeping for Lesley, of course.

George Glashan
George Glashan
5 months ago
Reply to  David Bell

David your obviously too clever for me, ignoramus that i am, you’ll have to direct me to what i have done that is gate keeping?

David Bell
David Bell
5 months ago
Reply to  George Glashan

Your quote, ending: “…why should Lesley have to pass a reading test first”. It concludes your admonition of Penelope’s post. You confected the term ‘gate keeping’ and you first indulged in it. But never mind your smokescreen, what about the historical background that Penelope described? You claimed she lacked knowledge so I’m interested in hearing why she is mistaken.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
5 months ago
Reply to  David Bell

Me to !

George Glashan
George Glashan
5 months ago
Reply to  David Bell

I’ve been accused of many things but I’ve never been called a confectioner before, I’ll take it as a complement, that i’m something sweet and moreish, rather than as intended.
Your welcome to white knight Penelope til your confection free heart is content, maybe she’ll gift you a napkin for your next tilt?
I have no interest in Penelope’s knowledge or anecdote as its actually known, but i do take exception when people use their “lived experience” as an excuse to call for others to shut up or to be excluded from a discussion.
Have a great day David, and go get yourself some confections.

David Bell
David Bell
5 months ago
Reply to  George Glashan

So you evade the question by making silly comments on vocabulary? I can only assume that English isn’t your native language as otherwise you would know that the word ‘confect’ also means to make up or create and not just in a bakery. You can’t have your cake and eat it George, through juvenility. Answer the points Penelope raised.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
5 months ago
Reply to  George Glashan

I protest. Lack of knowledge always stops me from posting. I post on things I know something about. Or else I ask a question inviting others to fill me in.
I have no objection to informed criticism—I welcome it, but I do think that gratuitous, unfounded nastiness has a bad effect on discussion and the atmosphere in which it takes place. I feel it should be discouraged, and am critical of Unherd for not moderating more vigorously.
I don’t think a serious understanding of freedom of speech extends to allowing lies, insults, disinformation, propaganda, etc., free reign.

David Bell
David Bell
5 months ago
Reply to  Penelope Lane

Fortunately, Penelope, this irksome individual is the exception rather than the rule on Unherd. I like this site for its quality articles and the intelligent, informed comments they usually generate. I don’t think that calling in the moderator is the best answer to irritants like this one as that can lead to censorship. Challenge his posts politely with logic and facts and let other readers decide.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
5 months ago
Reply to  David Bell

Theoretically, you are probably right.
In practice, readers often do not have the time or facilities to read up on outrageous claims and untruthful statements to determine the facts for themselves. So if no one calls such claims into question—and this happens all the time on Unherd—they reign on.
Also, and this is not a minor factor, I find it can be so time-consuming and actually difficult to plough through the multitude of pointless and misleading comments to find those offering a basis for worthwhile further discussion, that I am put off and don’t bother. Thus, my careful contribution is lost. This has happened many times for me on Unherd.
While I agree with you that the quality of articles is generally good ranging to excellent, I cannot agree about the quality of reader comments. There is too much pile-on: seeing a red downtick and mindlessly adding your own. I experience this repeatedly. And they never take the time to comment themselves. So you don’t know why they downtick. Hence you cannot answer, nor can you address any specific points. I say, this is the mentality of the mindless mob, which wants to kill off discussion, and it is here that a role for better moderation presents.
When your reasonable voice wanting discussion on your comment is silenced by Unherd’s tick system, which kills you off with sheer weight of red-downtick numbers, I say, that is censorship. It is Unherd’s active, deliberate encouragement, via its tick system, of mindless denunciation. A polarisation toward conflict based in opinionation without reference to facts or information.
Otherwise, yes, there are some good comments and some worthwhile discussions. But are these drowned out by the mindless red-trickery?

Last edited 5 months ago by Penelope Lane
rodney foy
rodney foy
5 months ago
Reply to  Penelope Lane

Well said! I agree entirely. In fact, people should stick to one or two main points, and only one or two links to evidence, or quotes

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
5 months ago
Reply to  Penelope Lane

Comment deleted

Last edited 5 months ago by Andrew Fisher
Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
5 months ago

All true but, in addition, there is probably a much simpler explanation. It is abundantly clear that over myocarditis (i.e. requiring hospitalization is a really rather common adverse reaction in young males between the ages of 15 and 50 with an incidence of something like 1 in 2000 if not a bit more (depending on the study). It is also clear that sub-clinical myocarditis may also be an issue (see below). On top of that we see a large number of soccer players collapsing on the field with cardiac conditions, something that would be an extreme rarity in the past over which a huge brouhaha would be made. Clearly something is going on. Djokovic is not stupid but very smart. He’s had Covid, adverse reactions to the vaccines are significantly worse for those who’ve already COVID, and most importantly the degree of protection afforded by prior infection is well over an order of magnitude greater and longer lasting than that afforded by any of the vaccines. So why would any sensible person in his position, at the top of his game physically, risk messing himself up and either suffering a severe adverse reaction, or simply play tennis under par.
As an aside, I have a close friend who is a very avid cyclist. He has a coach who gives him very structured workouts on the indoor trainer where he has to reach certain power levels for specific lengths of time. So a hard workout. For two weeks following both his 2nd shot and his booster shot he was unable to reach the pre-requisite power levels. He didn’t feel bad, he wasn’t out of breath in any way when going about his regular business or on light exertion, and he had no cardiac pain. Yet clearly his cardiac output was affected such that he was unable to reach his functional threshold for 10-20 min or reach O2 max levels for shorter intervals. After 2 weeks he was fine again. My gut tells me his cardiac ejection fraction was somewhat reduced (although still well in the normal range) – i.e. he basically experienced sub-clinical myocarditis.

Kate Marris
Kate Marris
5 months ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

Just as you say. The simple explanation really is that simple! Why would he take the risk? One longs for well circulated media to publish it. (Which is not to say this isn’t an insightful article; it is).

Last edited 5 months ago by Kate Marris
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

Johann, my neighbour in his 40s, slim, healthy (but I admit not particularly athletic) had pericarditis and two heart attacks after his vaccines. He is left with a condition whose name I cannot remember, except that it involves severe vertigo. That is besides any heart damage.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago

Hmmm, a troll is out today. Someone downvoted this comment. Now I was not posting an opinion (which you can freely downvote), I voted a fact. What is it you don’t like Troll? If you don’t like the fact that someone has had an adverse reaction to the vaccine, then you should upvote my comment.

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
5 months ago

That’s really bad and unfortunate. But the fact that you even know somebody who had a severe adverse reaction really indicates that it’s a far more common than one might suppose – i.e. really the tip of the iceberg.

Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
5 months ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

I’ve heard it’s probably because the fitness of extreme sports people is on an edge. They keep a very fine balance of extreme fitness till the point it tips over and the ‘vaccines’ or something in the them can tip them over the edge. Probably their hearts are used to bring so efficient that the vaccines are reacting with their body conditioning.
Whatever it is , the one cure for all is daftest approach to health and well-being. This approach is not a triumph of medicine over pandemic, it’s incredibly backward & utter madness.

Andrea X
Andrea X
5 months ago

Thanks for this insightful article.

Michael Sweeney
Michael Sweeney
5 months ago

As a regular watcher of “Pardon The Interruption” on ESPN, I look forward to Tony and Mike apologizing to Novak. Of course, they work for the evil empire of ESPN that has monetized EVERYTHING in sports, so they are obvious candidates for the world of One Network-One Vaccine for All.
When Novak is done with tennis, I hope he uses his Tennis base as a platform for achieving REAL greatness. Oh yea, he is funny too.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
5 months ago

“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.”
Sound eminently sensible to me

Satya Kanwarova
Satya Kanwarova
5 months ago

My heart will always be open to Novax.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
5 months ago

We have a lot to learn from the Serbs toughness, resilience and determination… they warned of Islamic extremist threats and terrorism long before we realised what would happen across the world- unfortunately their extreme and brutal reaction, so rightly condemned at the time, eroded the original warning.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
5 months ago

Well put. They had a point but they lost the plot big time. I’ll never forget their shelling and sniping at defenceless Muslim civilians in Sarajevo.

will_crozier
will_crozier
5 months ago

That quote from “Serve to Win” is epic

David Bell
David Bell
5 months ago

Good on him for all that but he demonstrates disdain for others and their equally valid right to contrary opinions, or in this case a nation’s immigration rules. Australia doesn’t want him in and he has no right to demand entry. As far as cultural sensitivity is concerned he’s as deaf as a doorpost.

Elena Lange
Elena Lange
5 months ago
Reply to  David Bell

In psychoanalytic terms, this is called projection, but thanks for your input.

Last edited 5 months ago by Elena Lange
Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
5 months ago

Interesting read…..BUT…..Aussies, particularly in Victoria have had to endure the longest and most brutal police state lockdown on the planet.
A bit rich now to roll the red carpet out. I know I would be up in arms.
The interesting point is that the judge dismissed the case purely on technicalities on Australian Border Force c**k ups…….
Morrisson is in big trouble now…..whatever his government decides, it will be lose lose. Independence of justice is normally sacrosanct in democracies and although some think of Australia as a police state…..I will settle for a police state….democracy as Dan Andrews so elegantly showed. Suppose the immigration minister does nothing…..then the Kiwi neighbour, not at all all disinterested in the matter, will flog Morrisson. If they decide to expel him, lose lose again…..great champion…..etc bla bla bla ….all in Serbian with a bit of help from ESPN.
The guy lied about his travelling prior to flying to Oz…….for me that settles it. First class back to Belgrade.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
5 months ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

I suspect the audience at the Open may have their say – and it’ll be more than words I expect.

Vijay Kant
Vijay Kant
5 months ago

The same “anti-authoritarian-feeling” argument also applies to the population of Middle Eastern dictatorships. These dictators have made sure that the suspicion of public towards them is redirected towards the West and everything western, including the ideas of democracy and human rights!

Last edited 5 months ago by Vijay Kant
Leigh Dixon
Leigh Dixon
5 months ago

I am an Australian who’s views on vaccination are possibly similar to Novak Djokovic’s. However, we have avoided the rates of infections and the consequences thereof by being able to control our border entry.. This requires evidence of vaccination or, in its absence a valid medical exemption.
The question is: does the information he provided with his visa application support his claim to be granted a medical exemption?
There is no doubt that his treatment by immigration officials was poor and this was confirmed by the judge’s decision. However, there was no ruling in relation to his claim to have suffered and and recovered from the virus in the previous 6 months. That, as far as I know is still an open matter.

Last edited 5 months ago by Leigh Dixon
Robin Bernstein
Robin Bernstein
5 months ago

When he first came on the scene I started off really liking Djokovic. The more success he has had and the more I read about him the less I like him.
He has lied and deceived people to get his own way so he can play in Australia. What else has he done or lied about in his career? Makes me wonder.

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
5 months ago

Novak Djokovic is about to become the first athlete to ever be banned from a competition for not taking drugs.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
5 months ago

A clever article: it cites a number of apparently contradictory facts about Djokovic without coming to any moral conclusion about the man.
Rich avenues for further research, for those interested in facts, would be to look into the connection between ultra-conservative patriarchal religion, ultra-rightwing male-dominated politics, and ancient occult Balkan brotherhoods with a history of ethnic troublemaking.
The interesting thing about this nexus is that the religion part of it is not confined to one denomination. The same type of malefic, ethnicity-linked influence can be seen exerting its power as much behind Polish ultra-Catholicism as behind Balkan super-Catholicism, as much behind comfortably-established Balkan Orthodoxy as behind cast-in-concrete Balkan Islam.
The failure of the attempted imposition of decades of Communist ideology in a fruitless effort to overcome these ancient ethnic tribal hatreds is evidence that that approach is doomed to failure.
You cannot overlay deep, gut-based blood-and-soil convictions with abstract, brain-based ideologies and expect success.
Racist blood-and-soil instinctual feeling has to be exposed for what it is. Then perhaps it can be educated, enlarged, and grown gradually into something better.
if I were an Australian immigration official, I would want to be interrogating Djokovic about his Serbian nationalism, not just his novaxx stance.
Because one of the most terrifying aspects of our current state of play is that these same malefic influences are entering Australia via the back door on the back of American fundamentalist pentecostal cults. This is the new religious face they are adopting. The Australian PM is a devotee of one of the worst of these cults.
To understand Australia’s eventual decision on Djokovic’s visa, you will need to know that these malefic American influences are taking over the wellness movements, so that anti-vaxx is being made respectable and pseudo-mainstream. Care about your health? Oppose vaccines! And things along similar lines. So when malefic anti-vaxx meets malefic Serbian nationalism, know that this does indeed mean trouble. Djokovic is most definitely no sports innocent, dragged into stuff to which he has no relation.

rob monks
rob monks
4 months ago

A good piece. Australian press especially Aust Guardian wrote one dimensional smears of the mam