The last time we learned something new about Novak Djokovic was when he told Amol Rajan of the BBC that he was prepared to give up a chance at the GOAT crown so that he could stick by his beliefs. (These beliefs were that he didn’t want to put the COVID vaccine, which has produced mild side effects in all but a tiny percentage of those who have taken it, into his body.) The fact that he didn’t take the vaccine wasn’t that surprising; the pseudoscientific beliefs had always been there. Coming back to win Wimbledon after a hellish first half of the year marked by absences at big tournaments and a brutal loss to Nadal at Roland-Garros? By this point, everyone knows Djokovic’s resilience knows no bounds. He has overcome virtually every kind of deficit and disappointment on the tennis court; he wasn’t going to fall short here.
But saying he was prepared to set aside his life goal — the pursuit of big tennis trophies — to stick by this opinion on the vaccine? That was new. We’ve gotten to know many Novak Djokovics over the years: the legend, the Djoker, the nice guy, the rage monster, the steely-eyed dream-crusher who hit winners when down match point, the guy who wanted to please the crowd, the challenger, the perfect player, and the detached. This is a different version of Djokovic, one whose most defining characteristics are thousands of miles away from the biggest tennis courts. His other controversies — the Adria Tour, the disqualification from the 2020 U.S. Open — were a product of carelessness. In this case, he might be mistaken, but he knows exactly what he’s doing, and he’s clearly okay enough with the consequences not to switch course.
Djokovic’s omission from the Australian Open was shocking. He was going to play and he was in the country, then in a matter of days, he couldn’t and he wasn’t. Aside from the good-and-evil of it all, his saga Down Under was like the Republic’s in the Star Wars prequels: they committed themselves utterly to taking out minor obstacles in Darth Maul and General Grievous, only to find that Palpatine was pulling the strings the entire time and nothing they had done actually mattered. Djokovic seemed to score a minor victory when he was released from detention — he even practiced on Rod Laver Arena — then he was deported anyway through the use of Alex Hawke’s special powers.
This, Djokovic’s withdrawal from the U.S. Open due to his continued unvaccinated status, is the opposite. There has been no talk of medical exemptions in the leadup to the U.S. Open, no debate over fanning the flames of anti-vaccine spirit. (There is so much of that in the U.S. already it barely makes me blink anymore.) The United States’ COVID policies with respect to unvaccinated visitors haven’t changed in a long time. There was talk over the past couple weeks that the policy might change, but the CDC’s updated website maintained that non-U.S. citizens and immigrants had to be vaccinated to earn entry into the country. Despite many clamoring for Djokovic to be admitted into the country and the tournament — some semi-prominent alt-right-wingers got behind him — everyone knew they had no real power over the decision.
You can draw all kinds of conclusions from this expected withdrawal, even from a neutral perspective. Djokovic’s continued refusal to get jabbed is frustrating. A 21-time major champion’s presence in the tennis world being reduced to a social media announcement as the rest of the field prepares to do battle on one of the biggest stages of the world beggars belief. That all of this is happening as Djokovic and his greatest rival in Nadal surge to unseen heights in men’s tennis is tragic, that tennis is making headlines in big news outlets because of this is embarrassing.
And yet, these emotions are dulled, because in knowing what was to come for the past several months, we’ve had a while to sit with them. Djokovic has been a prominent figure on tour for 16 years now. There are no secrets with him anymore. Presumably, he will come back strong at the majors (the ones he plays, anyway) in 2023, because coming back strong is what he does, but we’ve got a while to wait before then. In the meantime, his withdrawal from the U.S. Open will generate a massive reaction. His fans will be pissed. His haters will be happy. Neutrals will be disappointed. No one should be surprised.