It’s been quite the year for Novak Djokovic, who is back in action today. On this day in 2021, he was crowned as champion of the Australian Open, again. That was his 18th Grand Slam title, his ninth Down Under, and would set the tone for what would be one of his most successful seasons.
He would go on to win the French Open in the absence of Rafael Nadal, and then Wimbledon to assert himself as the greatest tennis player on the planet. In summer, it looked as if he could complete the historic Golden Slam, but lost in the semi-finals of the Tokyo Olympics, before Daniil Medvedev ended his hopes of a Calendar Slam in the US Open final.
He was three matches away from completing the perfect year in tennis, yet just months later, his reputation away from the court has been tarnished, perhaps irreversibly. The situation that unfolded in Australia last month could not have been further from his crowning glory in 2021, when he dismantled Medvedev in Melbourne.
The furore that surrounded his arrival and subsequent departure from Australia caused a debate over the situation surrounding unvaccinated athletes. The Australian government decided that he would be treated as a normal citizen and would not be made exempt from the rules, which set a precedent for upcoming tournaments.
In fact, as it stands, Wimbledon is the only major that Djokovic would be able to come and play in as an unvaccinated player. Although the Serbian has stated that he is not anti-vax, he does defend his right to decide what goes into his body.
"Because the principles of decision making on my body are more important than any title or anything else,” he told the BBC. “I'm trying to be in tune with my body as much as I possibly can."
Despite the vaccine’s huge sample size and safety, Djokovic is yet to take up the option of having one, while he could also have another horse in this race. He has an 80% stake in biotech firm QuantBioRes which claims to be developing a drug to treat patients who have contracted COVID-19 without the need for vaccination.
Djokovic can do whatever he likes when it comes to his body. That is set in stone, and not up for debate. But his legacy has already been affected. People are no longer talking about his phenomenal on-court achievements, but instead his opinion on vaccination has taken centre-stage whenever his name has been mentioned.
He is one of, if not the greatest tennis player of all time and he could well go on to beat Rafael Nadal’s record of 21 Grand Slam titles, but the Australian Open just gone will forever stand out as a missed opportunity to go even further. This year he should have won his tenth Aussie Open, and only he denied himself that opportunity.
He could miss the French Open and US Open this year and they will once again provide missed opportunities for Grand Slam titles, if he cannot play. While ultimately the borders are likely to relax their laws on entry requirements over the next year, this just seems like wasted time for the 34-year-old. Although his on-court achievements should not be tarnished by his off-court decisions, he isn’t getting any younger.
His stance on vaccines could cost him the record of all-time Grand Slam titles.