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As Novak Djokovic reclaimed his robes as the king of New York, it was jolting to recall how, a mere 12 months earlier, he had been barred even from entering the country. Just as in Australia, where he purged the horrors of last year’s deportation soap opera to seize his 10th title at Melbourne Park, he has proved that he is never more dangerous than when demonised. Lock him out, as two Grand Slam host nations have discovered, and he simply rebounds with twice the force.
A 24th major title represents an epochal feat, achieved by the most defiant athlete of this or any generation. Doubly astonishing is the fact that Djokovic could have 26 or 27 by now, were it not for the politicising of his vaccination status or his accidental thwacking of a loose ball into a lineswoman’s throat. That notorious default at the 2020 US Open proved only a prelude to his casting as a global outcast, as the Serb fell foul of both Australia’s draconian Covid-19 border policy and the Biden administration’s continued extensions of the ban on unjabbed foreign nationals.
“Why, Novak, why?” asked Amol Rajan in a BBC interview, struggling to comprehend how the man in front of him could place a decision to remain unvaccinated above a tilt at tennis immortality. For Djokovic, it was not an either/or equation. He was already an all-time great by the time it became fashionable to pillory him as a dastardly anti-vaxxer. He could afford to wait out the moral panic of the pandemic and see how the pieces fell. It was, to judge by the renewed clarity of purpose with which he has returned, a shrewd calculation.
DJOKOVIC HAS DONE IT! GRAND SLAM 24 🏆🐐 pic.twitter.com/ljZTW5EYUn
— Sky Sports (@SkySports) September 10, 2023
For Djokovic derives strength from knowing that he has not given an inch to his detractors. Whatever you might think of his choice in refusing the vaccine, you can hardly deny that he follows through on his convictions, even at a high personal cost. It was utterly absurd that he found himself exiled from the 2022 US Open, given he had been allowed to compete in 2021, at a time of far stricter protocols. Little wonder that, in 2023, he has been a force reawakened on American soil, sweeping to glory both in Cincinnati and at Flushing Meadows.
The same story unfolded in Australia, where Djokovic’s response to his humilating ordeal in a refugee detention centre the year before was to win every match in Adelaide and Melbourne. Where less iron-willed players might have been forgiven for nursing deep mental trauma at the memory of being incarcerated and ultimately expelled, he turned his nightmare into fuel. Now he has repeated the trick, performing since his US travel ban as if he has never been away. “I wouldn’t say that it was easy,” he smiled. “But people love comeback stories. They motivate me.”
If you were to read all the self-help manuals in the world, the combined wisdom would not come close to the psychological strength that Djokovic has developed. He seems able to surmount any obstacle, to use any setback as a means of reasserting his dominance. His coach, Goran Ivanisevic, reflected that when they reconvened for the American hardcourt swing, Djokovic did not once mention his defeat to Carlos Alcaraz in the Wimbledon final. The preoccupation was solely the US Open, with any harking back to previous results forbidden. Why do his fellow tennis players even bother leaning on shrinks and gurus, when they have a mind like this in their midst?
Djokovic gave a telling reply when asked if he regretted missing two major tournaments as a direct consequence of resisting vaccination. “No regrets,” he said. “I’ve learned through life that regrets only hold you back and basically make you live in the past.” From anyone else, this might have come across as a platitude. But from somebody who had played 72 majors, reaching the final in 36 of them and winning 24, it had the ring of absolute truth.
With Ivanisevic claiming his pupil will carry on until at least the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028, it is far from fanciful to suggest that Djokovic could amass 30 majors, a once-unthinkable notion. If he does so, the decisive factor will not be his outlandish talent, but his supreme willpower, the quality that makes him arguably the most compelling sporting figure of the age.