“Ladies and gentlemen, this is BBC Radio, welcome from rainy Wimbledon.”
I loved tennis even before I had a chance to watch any of its games. In 1980s Cairo, before the era of satellites and Internet, I first heard about tennis from the late BBC Arabic sports correspondence of Adel Sherif. The legendary Egyptian commentator with his charming voice and enticing commentary helped me understand tennis without even watching the game; he made me love a game that I couldn’t afford to play. Minutes before the 3:00 pm BBC World News and during the Grand Slam seasons, Sherif’s reports were like an after-school treat for a girl deprived of the luxury of playing sports.
Luckily, a few years later, Adel Sherif’s wife Samia Sadeq became the head of Egypt’s national television, and thanks to his influence, she approved the broadcasting of the Wimbledon and French Open semifinals and finals. The few minutes’ radio treat had been upgraded to a full 8 days every year of tennis feasts. I finally could watch my beloved sport and make sense of everything Adel Sherif had said in his reports.
Moving to England gave me the opportunity to learn and practice my beloved sport. I finally could afford to buy a racket, join a tennis club____ luxuries I couldn’t afford in Egypt. Like many, I believe that tennis is the best sport to maintain health, fitness, strength, and agility. A game that honours science rather than deny it, a game that inspires grace and not hooliganism and conspiracies—and, most importantly, a game that respects rules instead of trying to bypass them through exploiting legal loopholes.
I was particularly excited to first see Novak Djokovic winning his first Grand Slam in 2008, despite his defeating my all-time favourite, Roger Federer, because he came from a country less known in the tennis arena. I saw him as an underdog who prevailed, which is a quality I admire, and despite the huge gap in success rank, I can relate too. For years, I ignored his provocative nationalistic political rhetoric, especially his controversial stance on Kosovo. I convinced myself that his politics wouldn’t affect his game.
But the latest fiasco of the tennis world number one, Novak Djokovic, and his request for an Australian visa despite his refusal to vaccinate against COVID-19 has not just put me off, but made me furious. Djokovic has become a hero to anti-vaxxers and COVID-sceptics around the globe, and a negative influencer who is encouraging conspiracies that threaten the fight against the most vicious pandemic in our lifetime.
Many supporters of Djokovic argue on the basis of a technicality, blaming the Australian authorities for issuing him a visa then detaining him. The Australian judge who ordered his release seems to agree, basing his verdict on the fact that the tennis superstar was not given enough time to respond to the notification of his visa’s cancellation. But such an argument, albeit logical and valid, misses two important points: First, soon after his detention, there were photos of him posing for photographs with children at an award ceremony the day after his December positive PCR test was confirmed. Second, would Djokovic have taken the vaccine and complied with the rules if he had not tested positive last December?
A player going out and about after a positive COVID test, maskless and mixing with others, relying on the virus rather than the vaccine for his visa application raises a lot of questions about his integrity and suitability as a role model.
The World Health Organization has recognized vaccine hesitancy as a top threat to global health. Anti-vaccine aggression means that more people will die and the pandemic will be prolonged with perilous impacts on the economy and health care, especially among the unprivileged and vulnerable. But anti-vaxxers don’t seem to care. They are happy to reject the vaccine, but when infected, they have no problem rushing to hospitals to fill precious ICU beds. Various reports confirm how unvaccinated people are more likely to be admitted to intensive care with COVID, up to 60 times more in some reports.
One would think that a smart superstar would stand for science that clearly states how vaccination reduces the risk of hospitalisation and intensive care admission. A superstar from a country that emerged from the ashes of civil war and dictatorship should logically be a champion for equality and fair distribution of the vaccine, which can save millions of unprivileged in the poorest nations around the globe.
But Djokovic has chosen the opposite and opted to be a champion for conspiracies and a hero for those who spin the concept of freedom to put the lives of others at risk.
If Djokovic wins this Australian Open, he will become the most successful men’s tennis player in history. But his victory will not just be a pyrrhic victory, but a toxic one too—a victory of bureaucratic logic over fairness, a victory of conspiracy over science, and above all a victory of anti-vaccine recklessness above health and safety. That is, in my book, an insult to the millions of victims of the pandemic around the globe and the healthcare professionals who are still fighting daily to save lives from this vicious virus.
As a fan and admirer of the great game, I urge Novak Djokovic to visit an intensive care unit in Melbourne or Belgrade and hear from victims of COVID and those who have lost loved ones to COVID. Perhaps then he might change his mind and channel his success and fame into being a force for good and restore the faith of many, including myself, in the beautiful game.