World No. 6 men’s tennis Novak Djokovic will not play at the US Open this yearwhich is due to start on Monday in New York, as he is still not vaccinated against COVID-19. Sports IllustratedJon Wertheim and Chris Almeida examine the star’s decision, what it means for his pursuit of the all-time major winning record and how it affects his legacy.
Chris Almeida: Here we are Thursday at noon EST, the week before the US Open main draw begins, and three-time tournament winner Novak Djokovic, who was famously runner-up last year, is is removed from the tournament. We kind of knew this was coming: if you’re not vaccinated and you’re not a US citizen, you can’t enter the country. Djokovic did not play any of the pre-season events in the United States. But still, it’s a pretty jarring development. And that would have been shocking a year ago.
Seven months ago, we were having all these same conversations: Will he really cost himself an inheritance because he is wary of vaccines? Well, now it looks like he will.
Jon Wertheim: To me, this sounds a lot like Serena’s retirement announcement two weeks ago. You knew this was coming. The fact that it’s been made official seems shocking, but entirely unsurprising. And I think you’re just stepping back and… I think we’re past the kind of vaccine litigation now. Right? It’s more about the idea than a guy who’s 35 years old and on the cusp of history, and who’s spoken openly and, I think, admirably about how to retire with the most of majors is the primary objective. How he would retire from competing for two of four majors in the year he turned 35. It is simply extraordinary.
And I think we’re going to talk about it for many, many years. Part of that has to do with sports records. But part of that is about the broader perception. And you know, who, without turning this into referendums on vaccines and appropriate behavior in global crises… Someone just wrote to me, and I think that’s a really good point. He said: At this point, how much of this is about Djokovic – he who truly believes, after we have billions of people who have taken this vaccine with no adverse effects, including tennis players, that there is something wrong About them ? And to what extent is it more than an athlete’s mentality to overtake rather than concede defeat? Is it the same stubborn streak that makes athletes excel at their daily work by elevating their heads in this other way?
CALIFORNIA: I do not know. I mean, I still remember reading a story about him around, I think, 2018. He had this brief period where he kind of gave up after winning the Novak Slam in 2015-16. After that he didn’t win for a while and it turned out that he had elbow problems. So he had the operation. And he doesn’t believe in surgery. He would have been so upset by what he had done that he would have cried for days. But this operation brought back his career. And that still really shocked me, because after seeing that this procedure helped him, he was still upset. Obviously, the strength of what he believes is quite anomalous, even for athletes who are like public health mavericks. But now he has pulled out of two majors where he would have been the heavy favorite.
JW: Let’s not forget that he won the previous major! He’s on a seven-game winning streak. The problem is this: on social media, at some level, there is a completely contemporary pattern of facts. You will find thousands and thousands of people saying: You are a maverick; you are a hero; you are a man of conviction. The other players are sheep. There is enough positive reinforcement. So who knows? I mean, he may think that’s a great act of moral courage. There are certainly enough returns, right?
I think everyone’s arguing about US travel policy and double standards and Fauci and the CDC and I’m just thinking about the basics stand back this guy is on the threshold of history and this is someone – I’m about to break Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak – someone about to set one of the great sporting benchmarks, and he voluntarily retires from running . You see all kinds of tennis players go to extremes to play these majors. This is what kept Serena Williams going at 40. And that’s what kept other players from retiring. Andy Murray has a metal hip. Have you watched that documentary about what he does every morning to get back there? The idea that someone misses a major when they’re in great shape, they’ve won the previous one, they want to win more… taking that kind of position is really extraordinary.
CALIFORNIA: And that’s not the end. As far as we know, this is also continuing in the next major. He could be banned from Australia for the next three years.
JW: Yeah, and then he goes to French, which is his least successful major, and suddenly he’s 36. Despite all the thought exercises and assumptions about this GOAT race, no one would ever have thought it could come down to one of the contenders not putting themselves in the running because they didn’t want a vaccination that billions of people have received it without adverse effects.
CALIFORNIA: I mean, maybe that’s a stupid thing to say right now, but I think he’s still gonna get away with it. Still, however, he may have lost three wins on his tally, whatever he ends up being.
JW: I think you are right. If you handicap him right now, I’d say he’s retiring with the most majors, but for so many people – and it’s not just social media talking – I see it in interviews and I see it in the way the casual fan talks about it: He’s the anti-vax dude. I mean, he’s the Kyrie Irving of tennis.
And I don’t know if he realizes the kind of damage it does to his image. Even if he retires with the most majors, I think that’s something, with the casual fan, that’s going to stay.
CALIFORNIA: I don’t want to zoom out too much here. But isn’t that the average American fan?
JW: I do not know. I mean, at Roland Garros the fans were 95-5 for Nadal. I mean, I think you’re right. I think in the US and Australia it’s probably accentuated.
CALIFORNIA: Anyway, now who do you think will win?
JW: Carlos Alcaraz.
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