Grand-slam titles are not as important to Novak Djokovic as bodily autonomy. If necessary, he is prepared to sacrifice his own career legacy on the altar of his pseudo-scientific beliefs. And yet, vaccinated or not, there is still one key tournament that he can look forward to with confidence.
Not only will Djokovic play Wimbledon this summer, barring the emergence of some catastrophic new variant. He will almost certainly win it. Look down the list of potential rivals and it barely even exists.
A 40-year-old Roger Federer is battling to be ready in time for summer. Andy Murray has a metal hip. Rafael Nadal’s knees creak every time the ball skids low across the greensward. And Daniil Medvedev, that hard-court demigod, is so mortal on grass that he has hardly reached Wimbledon’s second week.
Djokovic, by contrast, will arrive on a 21-match winning streak at the All England Club. He hasn’t lost there since retiring from the 2017 quarter-finals with elbow trouble. Can anything or anyone stop him from adding a seventh Wimbledon title? On this evidence, the border guards will represent his greatest challenge.
Not that Djokovic is likely to be barred from competing, or even from entering the country, in an echo of Melbourne’s January fiasco. Yes, his chances of playing in Paris will remain shaky for as long as Emmanuel Macron wants to “p— off” the unvaccinated. But Britain’s Covid policies are far more relaxed.
It might seem ironic that, while Wimbledon welcomes all-comers, the three so-called “Opens” – of Australia, France, and the USA – would all currently be closed to Djokovic on immigration grounds.
Still, if he could pick one event to enter – and potentially to claim for his 21st major title – Djokovic would surely opt for Wimbledon. His very career was inspired by his early glimpses of Centre Court. “I watched Pete Sampras,” he has written, “and I knew one day that would be me.” He even adapted a plastic vase into an improvised trophy and presented it to himself in the mirror.
But if Djokovic is sure to focus on Wimbledon as the centrepiece of his 2022 season, then how does the tournament feel about it?
Some may be concerned that the presence of Djokovic – the only unvaccinated man in the world’s top 100 – might overshadow what should otherwise be a bumper edition of the Championships. Could the homecoming of Emma Raducanu, along with the possible last hurrahs of Murray and Federer, be drowned out by the ill-feeling?
This seems possible, but unlikely. Wimbledon contains multitudes of midsummer narratives. Admittedly, Djokovic’s arrival would be noisy and controversial. The same goes for the final, as and when he reached it. But his presence through the middle of the fortnight is so familiar that it would probably blend into the background.
As for the fans, they have never really been sold on Djokovic. You may remember the one-sidedness of the Centre Court crowd on July 14, 2019. That was the day he beat Federer, saving two championship points. The support was just as partisan at Lord’s that same afternoon, where England narrowly overcame New Zealand in the final of the Cricket World Cup.
This year, we could well hear a few boos ring out from the stands, such is the anti-hero persona that Djokovic burnished in Australia. But Centre Court is rarely rowdy. Even if he will feel no love in this cathedral of tennis, he is used to that. His eyes will be on the trophy, and another step forward on the great grand-slam list. If history is any guide, these local difficulties will only inspire Djokovic to new heights.