As the US Open got underway this week, you may have noticed Novak Djokovic was missing from the field. The Serbian tennis player withdrew from the competition last week,citing the United States’ entry policy for foreign nationals as the reason. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, which in my humble opinion isn’t the worst place to be these days, you’ll know this is because of his reluctance to get vaccinated against Covid. Djokovic has been one of the firmest public figures in his stance on this issue. In some ways, his stance has eclipsed sports altogether.
Of course, there are other professional athletes who’ve also deferred vaccination, causing a kerfuffle in their wake — like Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets, who earlier this year said he believes he made the “right decision” in refusing the vaccine, despite having to sit out so many games. But while Kyrie Irving is a fine basketball player, he’s not Michael Jordan. Novak Djokovic kind of is — which is why it’s a real shame he’s not playing at the US Open this year.
Coming off a career year, where he was one match win away from completing a Calendar Grand Slam (something that hasn’t happened in men’s tennis since 1969), Djokovic has only been allowed to compete in two of the four grand slams this season. If that wasn’t enough, at Wimbledon — where to no surprise he was crowned champion — he didn’t receive any rankings points, due to a convoluted situation that was the result of Wimbledon’s ban on Russian and Belarusian players. He was also forced to withdraw from four crucial Masters 1000 tournaments, which are worth half as many points as a grand slam and are considered to be just as necessary for most players to compete in.
Perhaps the strangest thing about his situation is that Djokovic was allowed to play in all of these tournaments in 2021, as the world got back to “normal”. Yet now that the pandemic is even farther in the rearview mirror, and we’ve seen both public and professional emphasis on the importance of Covid protocols wane, the United States (and Australia) have gotten even stricter on their entry policies. It’s this tightening of protocol that has resulted in the loss of one of the game’s three all-time greats. As a result, Djokovic, who would be #1 in the world right now had he been awarded the Wimbledon points he was due, could fall to outside the top 10 of the ATP rankings — somewhere he’s only been for 15 percent of his 873-week career.
In a divided world, with geopolitical tensions running especially high, sport has the opportunity to be a real force for good this year. Tennis itself is perhaps the largest sport where high-ranking competitors come from all corners of the earth, and its governing bodies (the ATP and WTA) have no national allegiance. If the field of players at a grand slam tournament doesn’t consist of the game’s best players for any reason other than injury, it’s an injustice to not only the sport, but global togetherness.
Is an unvaccinated Novak Djokovic coming to America to compete at one of our nation’s most prestigious events as risky as it was in 2020? And does that 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 although I’m a massive tennis fan, I can’t help but think about the other masters of their trades who are barred from entering based on their medical decisions. I don’t know who they are, because most of them aren’t on my TV regularly — but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be here.
While this year’s US Open may feel like business as usual in some ways, it’s lacking 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 that.
Andy Gorel is an editor at C-Heads Magazine as well as a photographer, journalist, and recording artist by the name of LA Parties