This week’s flirtation with the BNP Paribas Open represented yet another unforced error from Novak Djokovic, a man seemingly determined to tarnish his own reputation.
The world No 2 left his name on the entry list until after the draw for Indian Wells – the so-called “Fifth Major” – had been completed, before finally withdrawing at around 10pm GMT on Wednesday night.
This might seem trivial to an outsider, but the upshot was that the draw had to be rejigged in a patchy, unsatisfactory and – most crucially – unbalanced way. In a sport where every rankings point makes a difference, Djokovic’s late decision is likely to wind up his fellow professionals.
To go through the small print, world No 35 Grigor Dimitrov will now take over where Djokovic – as the second seed – should have been. Meanwhile, three of the four strongest players wound up in the top half of the draw, ruling out any prospect of a final between Australian Open champion Rafael Nadal and the new world No 1 Daniil Medvedev.
The bottom quarter, which is where Djokovic should have been, looked notably weak. From positions 98 to 128, there are no top-10 players. As it happens, Andy Murray could benefit from this unusual situation if he manages to come through his first two matches, as he had theoretically been on track to meet Djokovic in the third round.
Djokovic then posted a notably unapologetic social-media message. “While I was automatically listed in the BNP Paribas Open and Miami Open draw I knew it would be unlikely I’d be able to travel,” he said. “The CDC [Centre for Disease Control] has confirmed that regulations won’t be changing so I won’t be able to play in the US. Good luck to those playing in these great tournaments.”
Why did he need to spend the extra 24 hours in the draw, when a withdrawal before 11pm GMT on Tuesday night would have avoided any of this nonsense? According to his spokeswoman, “He hoped that regulations may change but the CDC has confirmed today that they will not be and so he will not be playing – hence the late withdrawal.”
The underlying issue, as the world should know by now, is that Djokovic has rejected the Covid vaccination. (Indeed, he is the only man in the world’s top 100 who has done so.) And you still need a vaccination certificate to fly into the USA.
It is only three weeks since the BBC broadcast an exclusive interview – organised by the Freuds public-relations firm – under the headline “Novak Djokovic willing to miss tournaments over vaccine”. That sounded humble and realistic and left many observers feeling more sympathetic towards Djokovic’s position on the grounds that everyone is free to choose their own path.
But this latest imbroglio functioned as a small echo of January’s drama in Australia. Once again, we saw Djokovic treating other players – and the game itself – in a headstrong and inconsiderate way.