Every night for two and a half months, Novak Djokovic woke to sirens and fled to his grandfather’s basement as bombs fell on Belgrade. He was an anonymous child in a country without global legends. One night his father placed ten Deutschmarks on the table: this was all they had. In childhood he also discovered sport. A few years earlier, he stood at the fence to watch a tennis camp in the Kopaonik mountains, and the coach, Jelena Gencic, invited him to play. She developed him into a player and man, introducing him to forehands and backhands, Pushkin and Beethoven. She taught him the short-angle crosscourt backhand; when she played Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, goosebumps rose all over his body.
Djokovic was sensitive: he suffered from allergies, asthma, sudden drops of energy and gastrointestinal pain. In the early years of his professional career, he frequently retired during matches because of exhaustion and breathing difficulties. Fans and competitors perceived this as physical and mental weakness. In 2009, after Djokovic quit during an Australian Open quarterfinal with Andy Roddick, Roger Federer commented that Djokovic was “disappointing,” adding, “I’m almost in favor of saying, you know what, if you’re not fit enough, just get out of here.”
Physical difficulty, political crisis, the wounds of being disliked: these all forced Djokovic to develop the traits that have come to characterize his successes and failures: an unyielding resilience and an unbending will to find success through alternative methods. If we read his life through these traits, we can see him as a kind of mythologically tragic figure, replete with extraordinary talents and fatal flaws. By twists of chance and fate, these characteristics hastened the climax of his global character: this Australian summer’s great drama of detainment, interrogations, protests, brief freedom through a procedural technicality, re-detainment and his ultimate deportation the day before the start of the tournament.
Djokovic mounted the stage with various alternative approaches to tennis. In 2010, a Serbian nutritionist asked him to press a slice of bread to his stomach and determined that Djokovic suffered from a gluten allergy. Djokovic abandoned dairy and refined sugar, and he gave up cold water and meat because they directed too much blood to the stomach in digestion. In 2011, he achieved one of the greatest seasons in tennis history, winning seventy out of 76 matches, five Masters 1000s and three Grand Slams. By the end of the decade he had surpassed Federer and Rafael Nadal in nearly every significant category. He nearly won the calendar Grand Slam twice, and he became the only man to win all nine Masters 1000 events in his career. He has won the most prize money and the most Masters 1000s, and he is tied with Federer and Nadal for the most Grand Slams in men’s history. Often he raised his tennis to perfection—notably in his two-hour dismantling of Nadal in the 2019 Australian Open final—and even miracle, as in his 2019 Wimbledon championship over Federer, when Djokovic managed to psychologically “transmutate” the cheers for his opponent into cheers for himself and achieve victory after being down two match points in the final set.
Djokovic’s incessant search to maximize his performance wasn’t limited to nutrition and technique. He practices yoga, tai chi and meditation. Before matches, he dedicates time for mental preparation: visualization, manifestation and positive thinking. He has become a player-philosopher in press conferences, speaking equally about human consciousness and groundstrokes. He has explained how telekinesis allows him to rise to a “higher vibration.” As a child he roamed mountain forests, where he spotted wolves: he said he connected with them spiritually and embodied their “wolf energy” to become a champion. A five-day journey through the French Alps in 2018, which he described as a philosophical and spiritual experience, reoriented him and restored him to success after an injury to his right elbow, along with changes with his coaching staff and reported marital difficulties, caused many to question the possibility of his return to preeminence.
In tragedy, time and fate weigh on a protagonist until they crush him. Djokovic has exhausted all disciplines and methods to overcome the burden of achieving all-time greatness. In the digital era, when fresh infinities of information threaten to render everything fleeting and meaningless, we have endeavored to ascertain permanence and meaning through statistics, ensuring our relevance through talk of GOATs. We always conclude that the greatest are ours, not the past’s. Djokovic came up after Federer and Nadal shattered men’s records that seemed to stand forever, and he took on the public mission of conquering them all.
We live in a time when sportsmen have become gladiators again, sacrificing their bodies for the mantle of eternal greatness. It is a cliché that sports are our mythology, but professional tennis proves that to be true. In 2016, Djokovic and Andy Murray exchanged blows on court until the final match of the season, each sacrificing their health and strength in order to emerge as the year-end number one. Murray won, then struggled with injuries for years and was forced to take nearly an entire year away from the tour to rehabilitate and resurface his injured hip: he has not won a Major or Masters 1000 since. Djokovic left for elbow surgery. Throughout their battles for Grand Slams, Nadal wore down his shoulder and his left foot while Federer depleted the ligaments in his knees. And as these men have accumulated pain, they have also accumulated unprecedented sums of prize money, trophies and celebrity.
So of course Djokovic resorted to new diets, yoga, philosophy and theology, wolf-metaphysics, visualization, manifestation, telekinesis, sabermetrics and hyperbaric chambers: he needed to do everything to become eternal. But this mission also cost him titles and time. He delayed his elbow surgery in 2018 because he was “trying to be as natural as possible” in the belief “that our bodies are self-healing mechanisms.” Andre Agassi quit coaching him because of his resistance to having the procedure done. After he finally underwent the operation, he “cried for two or three days,” saying that “every time I thought about what I did, I felt like I had failed myself.”
But maybe it wasn’t Federer’s records Djokovic sacrificed everything for: maybe it was love. At the start of his career, Djokovic grasped for audiences’ admiration by impersonating players on court, mocking their mannerisms, turning himself into the Djoker. But still fans did not love him as much as Federer and Nadal: he did not possess their beautiful, ruthless styles of play, was not as handsome as them, did not speak as eloquently and did not represent a country as respected as theirs. We could not tolerate his outbursts on court, his racket smashes, his shouts, his wild glares at the referees. We hated Novak Djokovic because he was not perfect like Federer and Nadal.
Last September, it seemed his arc turned upward: tragedy became comedy, and we learned to love this complex man. He was flawed, we knew, but only because he broke under the pressure of superhuman feats. We lost the old world in the pandemic: in 2021, injury finally conquered Federer, who played without grace in small tournaments at empty stadiums. Now we had more love to give. And filling this void was the ever-present elasticity of Djokovic’s game, his ruthless preparation, his undefeatability, his improved serving, his grip on the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and his most holy feat, close to an act of God, in defeating Rafael Nadal Parera on the red-brick dust of Court Philippe-Chatrier at Roland Garros—for the second time. At the U.S. Open the fans still jeered at him, and he raised his finger to his ear like our most beloved villain. Then he made it to the final round, and if he had beaten Daniil Medvedev he would have become the first man since Rod Laver to win the calendar Grand Slam. How could we not love him then?
That afternoon he had nothing left to give: no strategy, no sharp angles, no force on his shots, nothing. Medvedev defeated him in consecutive sets. In the final set, verging on yet another miraculous comeback, Djokovic sat on the changeover at 4-5. The crowd stood and cheered for him—the crowd that had always cheered for Federer and Nadal, that hated and booed Djokovic, now cheered for him, him, it cheered with full force for him—and Djokovic smiled and pumped his fist, and the crowd cheered and cheered and cheered, and Djokovic covered his head with a towel and sobbed, uncontrollably, because he had made it to the final match he needed for a Grand Slam and he did not have anything left in him and finally the crowd cheered for him.
All tragedies turn, as we saw this month. Focused on winning a record twenty-first Grand Slam, Djokovic miscalculated Australians’ response to his medical exemption to play. More than 90 percent of Australians are vaccinated for COVID-19, and they endured some of the longest and most restrictive lockdowns in the world, often not even permitted to visit ailing family members across state lines or attend their funerals. Djokovic’s Instagram post coyly announcing his “exemption permission” infuriated the public, and after he regained some of its sympathy for unfair procedures at the border, he lost it again when he admitted he continued to go out in public after learning he tested positive for the coronavirus in December. Polls approximated 71 percent to 83 percent of Australians wished for his deportation.
The politics of upcoming elections in Australia, along with Tournament Director Craig Tiley’s insistence on making an exemption for Djokovic, who would have been the only unvaccinated player in the men’s draw, launched Djokovic into this global spectacle. There, in the middle of the circus floor, we can see illuminated the figure of the super-athlete in the time of GOATs. The modern mythologized athletes command great powers—money, expertise, social and political influence—to aggrandize their legacies. They possess an unbreakable determination that they can overcome anything: opponents, injuries, even regulations and facts. After all, they have persevered on the court and won. But the Djokovic scandal reminds us that our relation to heroes and myths has long been compromised: as we revel in our GOATs’ success, we cannot turn from their failings and misdeeds. Our heroes broke record books—and families, the lives of people they abused, and protocols for performance-enhancing drugs. We no longer have tolerance for the ambitions, abuses and flaws of the powerful and rich. As much as we recognize our GOATs’ historic performances, we can also see through their swelling PR teams, marketing strategies, branding efforts and manufactured statements. With the coronavirus lockdown, we had even more time to scrutinize our deities and find them wanting. Djokovic—with his wolf energy, with his desire for glory and love—emerged as the rare figure who could at last rewrite the genre and climb out from tragedy into comedy. But then he reached too high.
This is what makes Novak Djokovic a tragic figure—not because he sat in sequester for a few days or was deported from Australia, but in the classical sense: that his greatest strength grows into his greatest flaw, that he fails to recognize the course of his fate. It is as if he has been fated to destroy himself in his attempts at attaining greatness. His demands for perfection turn to rage on the court, as we saw with his ejection from the 2020 U.S. Open for striking a line judge in the throat with a tennis ball. His distrust of established approaches led him to host the Adria Tour in June 2020, which he had intended to be a fundraiser for COVID relief but ended up becoming a super-spreader event tainted by footage of his maskless, undistanced, shirtless partying at a club. He expresses recognition and love in advocating for less-recognized players, but that same desire also motivated him to say last November that Sascha Zverev “had an incredibly tough year on and off the court”—because the ATP is investigating Zverev for domestic abuse—and “is such a great guy.” His 2021 season led L’Équipe to name him “Champion of Champions,” but he attended the accompanying interview, and removed his mask and roared for the photoshoot, without telling anyone he had tested positive two days prior. A Der Spiegel investigation recently suggested his positive test was faked, which if true would evidence an indiscriminate flaunting of laws and morals to achieve grand, once-unimaginable, self-mythologizing goals. In this tragedy, it doesn’t matter that the Australian government finally deported Djokovic not on the merits of his visa or the border laws but on the immigration minister’s argument of perceived risk—a subjective interpretation that would win in court and that some human rights lawyers have decried. What matters is that cosmic forces collided to conquer our hero, who could not recognize the situation and precipitated his own fall.
The pursuit of tennis eternity is great. But so is the cost of greatness: the determined, sacrificial, maniacal pursuit of records, adoration and fame. Of course, Djokovic’s story is not finished—it will not be over until long after he retires. The Australian fiasco has confronted him with an opportunity to continue with his character arc or to resist the conventions of the genre: not to recognize the fatal flaw, but to recognize it and change. We—chorus of fans, narrators of myth—are watching, waiting.