Attention on Novak Djokovic’s vaccination status unfair to modern tennis

(Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
(Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images) /

We can play today’s state of tennis quite a bit on John McEnroe. Mind you, I don’t bare any ill will toward Johnny Mac as he will always be one of my favorite players. But the way he was on the court affected the future of the game. And the attention that Novak Djokovic‘s vaccination status received is a reflection of modern tennis.

Djokovic has refused to get the COVID vaccine and he has that right. I am not going to make this into some kind of political argument. Am I vaccinated and hope others will be? Yes. But that’s my personal choice just as Djokovic not being vaccinated is his choice.

But in the 1970s tennis was extremely popular. Heck, even Americans cared about the sport and would watch. Players like McEnroe were not only good but were flamboyant. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind about the current happenings on the court whether you liked it or not.

Novak Djokovic isn’t vaccinated but the problem with tennis is greater

In the 1970s, players had the freedom to be more of themselves. Would they get kicked off the court if they went too far? Of course, and they should have. But because we saw a player’s personality as they played it felt like we knew who they were as people. We’ve lost that now, though, and it affects the game.

I can name names: McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, and Ilie Nastase. You might not even have been born when they played, but if you are a tennis fan you probably know their names. That’s because they didn’t just play the game of tennis, their personalities transcended the actual matches they were playing. But then the ATP decided to write a Code of Conduct, most likely because McEnroe wasn’t afraid to speak his mind on the court, and the game changed.

Tennis columnist Pete Bodo once said of McEnroe and the Code of Conduct in his book, Courts of Babylon: “The Code of Conduct not only makes it impossible to be a bad sport, it also denies the individual the opportunity to be a good one.” As a result of the Code of Conduct is that we no longer see a player’s personality.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both seem like good guys. Heck, judging from the work Federer has done away from tennis, he might be deserving of being sainted. But do we know them in the same way we felt like we knew McEnroe and Connors? No. The people who run tennis still want us to watch the game but have somewhat stolen the soul of it.

This is why Novak Djokovic taking the vaccine or not became such a big deal. It was a player at the top of the game making a personal choice about something that affected the game itself. In this day and age with all the immediate information we have at our fingertips on our phones, the world needs to feel like they have a connection with an entertainer or a sports figure. That they don’t actually have that is beside the point. It’s that people feel as they do and that keeps them interested in the person or the music or the sport.

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Heck, we don’t actually know Novak Djokovic, though we might hear why he doesn’t want to take the vaccine. The issue is that that is al most people know about Djokovic besides how good he is at tennis because tennis is no longer set up to make us feel a connection with the players, only the game. The game is great, sure. But for the sport to be ultra-successful in today’s world, we need to let the sport show the player’s personalities a bit more.