The one thing I can’t help but wonder about this whole Novak Djokovic vaccination mess

We can’t help but compare the language around Novak Djokovic’s vaccination scandal with Naomi Osaka’s treatment at the French Open. 

Novak Djokovic is currently in an Australian detention centre as the country’s border force investigates whether he’s eligible to enter the country. He was set to take the court for the Australian Open later this month, but in order to play, all participants need to be fully vaccinated against coronavirus. Djokovic, who had claimed he was medically exempt due to previously testing positive, didn’t meet the requirements for entry, had his visa cancelled and is now facing deportation. The player is now awaiting a legal trial over whether he can stay in the country.

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Aside from the bizarreness of the world’s number one male tennis player being detained, there’s something else that feels off about this whole debacle. The support from the tournament organisers, the jokes made on Twitter by fans and critics alike and the very worried reporting from news outlets feels hugely at odds with big stories about high profile tennis players in recent history. Most notably: Naomi Osaka’s run at the French Open in June 2021. 

Naomi Osaka was criticised for withdrawing from the French Open for her mental health

Osaka pulled out of the competition after being fined €15,000 by the Open for refusing to talk to journalists at post-match press conferences. She’d asked not to engage with the press due to the damage that it had on her mental health. When reporting this, the language in the press and on social media was very different. There were those who loudly came to her defence and showed support for the tennis player, but the overwhelming tone was judgemental, lacking sympathy and at times ridiculing of her mental health.

On the other hand, Djokovic’s case is either being seen as an unfair call by the Australian government or just downright comical. He has been described as being in “limbo”, his situation has been meme-ified and his story is dubbed as “incredibly funny”. Osaka was called weak, a quitter and dragged through the mud just for protecting her own mental health. 

Regardless of whether either of the French or Australian Open rules are just, both of the players broke them. Osaka to protect their own health, Djokovic to potentially endanger others. Yet, Osaka received an onslaught of abuse and was forced to withdraw by the body that should support her, while there seems to be far less official condemnation of Djokovic’s behavior.

It sends a very clear message: men are allowed to bend the rules when it is appropriate for them, and women can not. It’s also another reminder of the disparity between how we view mental vs physical challenges. There’s a distasteful ‘prove it’ attitude towards an athlete’s mental illness, while more sympathy and understanding surrounding individual choice when it comes to physical complications. These are both huge double standards we see time and time again in sport; Andy Murray quietly withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics men’s singles with a thigh strain, but Simone Biles withdrew due to a condition known as ‘the twisties’ and was met with uproar. 

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Osaka’s courage and selflessness is clear in her decision making: talking publicly about mental health is scary, and she even wrote that her withdrawal was down to the fact that she didn’t want to distract the competition. I wonder how different the narrative would be if it was Osaka, Biles or another female sports player in Djokovic’s shoes?

Images: Getty

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