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- Serbian tennis player
Want to know how Novak Djokovic became seemingly so vulnerable to quackery of all kinds, and a poster boy for the anti-vaxx movement? You only have to read his autobiography, Serve To Win. This peculiar book is full of new-age jibber-jabber, with chapter titles such as “How Opening My Mind Changed My Body”.
Here is an anti-scientific crank hiding in plain sight. Our personalities, they say, are formed by the stories we tell ourselves. So it is interesting to see how Djokovic’s frames his book. He mentions the NATO bombing raids on Belgrade during his childhood, which is invariably how TV documentaries about him begin. But these elements of the story are a sideshow beside the main thrust: how he suffered from recurring physical ailments – allergies, breathing difficulties, blocked sinuses – until he gave up gluten.
Nothing especially weird so far - until he explains how his gluten intolerance was diagnosed. A Serbian nutritionist called Dr Igor Cetojevic asked Djokovic to hold his right arm out at right angles and resist the pressure as he pushed down on it. Then the exercise was repeated, only this time while Djokovic held a slice of bread against his stomach. “I was noticeably weaker,” writes Djokovic, who adds that “kinesiological arm testing [has] long been used as a diagnostic tool by natural healers.” Yes, and mediums have long claimed to speak to the dead.
Suffice to say, this branch of alternative medicine – so-called “applied kinesiology” – remains largely unsupported by any scientific evidence. And that was only the start of the rabbit hole. “Growing up under communism, you are not taught to be open-minded,” Djokovic writes, a couple of pages later, before copying out a page of claptrap from traditional Chinese medicine. “Each organ in our bodies is undergoing repair in roughly this order: Lungs 3-5am, Large Intestine 5-7am, Stomach 7-9am …” You get the picture.
Here is the new Novak. The seeker after truth. The lover of nature. Here is a man who broke up his visits to Wimbledon with trips to the nearby Buddhapadipa Temple to meditate by a lake. A man who revealed two years ago that he has a “friend” in Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens – “a Brazilian fig tree that I like to climb”. Yes, Djokovic’s jet-setting spiritualism might sound charming in itself. But its side-effect has been credulousness.
Serve To Win describes a so-called “researcher” taking two glasses of water and directing loving energy towards one, while swearing angrily at the other. “After a few days … [the angry glass] was tinted slightly green … the other glass was still bright and crystal clear”. Harmless, perhaps, if deeply dippy. But then, last year, Djokovic could be found hosting a former estate agent called Chervin Jafarieh on his Instagram Live channel. Jafarieh was selling bottles of Advanced Brain Nutrients at $50 apiece, which – like Djokovic’s resistance to the Covid vaccination – sounded contrary to the interests of public health.
To return to the present, and the 2022 Australian Open, many have wondered why Djokovic doesn’t just put his career first and receive a jab. But you can see that his sceptical position on conventional medicine, and his enthusiasm for alternative treatments, lie right at the heart of his self-image. These are not positions to be easily abandoned. Especially for a man who has climbed to No1 in the world by following his instincts. The trouble is that, for all the power of human intuition, our instincts are notoriously unreliable. There is a clear story arc at work here, all leading to an interrogation room in Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport.
Following his famous meeting with Dr Cetojevic in the summer 2010, Djokovic won the Davis Cup with his Serbian team-mates, and then set out on the first great season of his career. The manner of the diagnosis is significant. Had Djokovic discovered his gluten intolerance via a conventional blood-test, he might never have decided that alternative medicine represents a great untapped resource. From there, it has been an ongoing evolution to views such as the one that Djokovic expressed in a 2018 interview with Shortlist magazine. “I believe that it is our mission to reach a higher frequency through self-care by exploring and respecting our own avatar, our body and, by doing that, raising the vibration of the planet."
Have Djokovic’s eccentricities hindered his career? From time to time. Take the wilderness period around 2017, when he struggled with an elbow issue before finally undergoing surgery in February of the following year. When I interviewed him about his comeback, in November 2018, he admitted that he had put the procedure off for as long as he could. “I was trying to avoid getting on that table because I am not a fan of surgeries or medications,” Djokovic said. “I am just trying to be as natural as possible, and I believe that our bodies are self-healing mechanisms … I just cried for two or three days afterwards … Every time I thought about it, I felt like I had failed myself.”
The operation proved triumphantly successful, allowing Djokovic to end a two-year dry spell by winning Wimbledon five months later. It is also worth noting that, at around the same time, he was one of the most influential voices within the governance structure of the ATP Tour. One of his suggestions was to equip each tournament with a mobile pod which – using some combination of cryotherapy or air pressure – was supposed to rejuvenate your muscles. In the end, this large, expensive and unwieldy item had to be crossed off the to-do list, partly because it was deemed unsafe by several countries.
And so we return to the dark side of this whole peculiar tale. Were Djokovic just a journeyman player, his pseudo-scientific beliefs would be no more than a bizarre footnote. As it is, he is a powerful role model, particularly in the Balkans. Thousands of people have probably emulated his stance on vaccines. Some are likely to suffer consequences as a result. As for Djokovic himself, he is clearly experiencing some turbulence of his own this week. But do not expect him to change. He is a stubborn character, used to getting his own way, and cut off from normal society by his very success.
He will not easily give up the philosophy that – for better and for worse – has made him the man he is.