As the US Open kicked off this week, you may have noticed that Novak Djokovic had disappeared from the field. The Serbian tennis player withdrew from the competition last week, citing the US entry policy for foreigners. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, which in my humble opinion isn’t the worst place to stay these days, you’ll know this is due to his reluctance to get vaccinated against Covid. Djokovic was one of the firmest public figures in his position on this issue. In a way, his position has eclipsed the sport altogether.
Of course, there are other professional athletes who have also postponed the vaccination, causing a kerfuffle in their wake, such as Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets, who earlier this year said she believes she made the “right decision” by refusing the vaccine, despite having to skip so many games. But while Kyrie Irving is a good basketball player, he’s not Michael Jordan. Novak Djokovic somehow is, which is why it’s a real shame that he won’t play at the US Open this year.
After a career year, in which he was in a match won by completing a Grand Slam of the calendar (which has not happened in men’s tennis since 1969), Djokovic was only allowed to compete in two of the four Grand Slams this season. As if that weren’t enough, at Wimbledon – where unsurprisingly he was crowned champion – he did not receive any points in the standings, due to a convoluted situation that resulted from the disqualification of Wimbledon for Russian and Belarusian players. He was also forced to retire from four major Masters 1000 tournaments, which are worth half the points of a Grand Slam and are considered equally necessary for most players to compete.
Perhaps the strangest thing about his situation is that Djokovic was allowed to play in all of these tournaments in 2021, when the world returned to “normal”. Yet now that the pandemic is even further in the rearview mirror and we have seen both public and professional emphasis on the importance of Covid protocols diminish, the United States (and Australia) have become even stricter on their entry policies. It is this tightening of protocol that has resulted in the loss of one of the game’s all-time greats. As a result, Djokovic, who would be number 1 in the world right now if he were awarded the Wimbledon points he deserves, could end up outside the top 10 of the ATP rankings – somewhere it was only 15% of his. 873- career week.
In a divided world, with particularly high geopolitical tensions, sport has the opportunity to be a real positive force this year. Tennis itself is perhaps the greatest sport in which high-ranking competitors come from all corners of the earth and its governing bodies (ATP and WTA) have no national loyalty. If the field of players in a Grand Slam tournament is not made up of the best players in the game for any reason other than injury, it is an injustice not only to the sport, but to the global union.
Is an unvaccinated Novak Djokovic coming to America to compete in one of our nation’s most prestigious events as risky as it was in 2020? And does this risk outweigh the effect it has on our nation’s culture, considering how low it is now? Personally, I think the reward outweighs the risk in a landslide. And even though I’m a huge tennis fan, I can’t help but think of the other masters of their trades who are barred from entering based on their medical decisions. I don’t know who they are, as most of them aren’t regularly on my TV, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be here.
While this year’s US Open may seem as usual in some ways, it lacks the best the sport has to offer. Djokovic deserves to be here too, and maybe for next year there is something we can do about it.
Andy Gorel is an editor of C-Heads Magazine as well as a photographer, journalist and recording artist by name Los Angeles parties