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Neil Drysdale: I stand with Andy Murray over Novak Djokovic in the court of public opinion

Novak Djokovic in action at the 2020 Australian Open.
Novak Djokovic in action at the 2020 Australian Open.

This is the story of two little boys who entered the world within a week of one another in 1987.

Andy Murray, born on May 15, was a talented all-round sportsman, who was offered a trial with Rangers, but chose to focus his attention on tennis and earned unprecedented success on the international circuit, not only winning three major titles, but boldly going where no Scot had gone before.

And Novak Djokovic, who arrived on May 22, has pushed and propelled himself to the brink of immortality, is revered in his native Serbia, and has amassed no less than 20 majors and stands on the brink of setting a new record in the men’s game if he can attain just one more title.

When you look at their respective records, it would be easy to conclude that Murray is a good player and Djokovic a great one, though that’s not how it appears to many of us. On the contrary, given the litany of injury woes he has endured for much of his 30s, it’s a near-miracle that the Scot is still involved in pursuing fresh glory on the ATP circuit.

Andy Murray is in Melbourne preparing for the Australian Open.

And then there’s their personalities, their attitude to those who follow them and their interaction with the younger generation. In this regard, it’s no contest. I recall reading an obituary about the late songwriter and record producer Ike Turner, which described him as “a brilliantly professional musician, but amateur human being”.

And pretty much the same can be said about Djokovic, who has become almost as famous for his anti-vaccination stance as his serve and volley.

The story has turned into a circus

Unless you’ve been living in a cave since the start of 2022, you’ll be aware of how the world No 1 turned up for the Australian Open, claimed he had a medical exemption, was detained at the airport and then stuck in a detention circle, as the lawyers circled. The circus led to Djokovic winning a court battle that overturned his visa cancellation, but Australia’s immigration minister still has powers to deport the unvaccinated player.

Novak Djokovic has been at the centre of a storm over his refusal to take a Covid vaccine.

His family have compared him to Jesus, the Australian Government has been attacked by the likes of Nigel Farage (who has been deliciously trolled by Murray) and the saga has completely overshadowed tennis, which, for many people, is the only area in which Djokovic is qualified to offer his opinion.

Personally, I would argue he is entitled to air his views on everything under the sun, on the understanding that others are allowed to brand it as bunkum. If he doesn’t want to take the Covid vaccination, so be it.

He’s an adult and he claims to have weighed up the evidence. But this isn’t just about him, it’s about the possibility he might infect other more vulnerable people and the message he is sending out to his many aficionados on social media, who have now hailed him as some sort of Messiah.

His critics call him ‘Novax’

This isn’t the first time he has strayed into controversy and dabbled in pseudo science. He believes in telekinesis and telepathy, thinks that water can avoid becoming polluted if you “direct loving energy” towards it, and has become close friends with a self-styled “wellness guru” Jafarieh, with whom he has participated in Instagram chats labelled “The Self Mastery Project”.

When professional tennis was on hold at the height of the outbreak in June 2020, he thought it was fine to organise the Adria Tour, a series of exhibition events in the Balkans. The tournament was abandoned in Croatia after Grigor Dimitrov tested positive for coronavirus, before Djokovic, his wife, Jelena, and players Viktor Troicki and Borna Coric revealed they also had the virus.

Andy Murray described getting the Covid vaccine as a “no-brainer”.

It was a massively stupid enterprise at a stage where there were no vaccines and most of the globe’s leading players had put their careers on hiatus. But that’s self-entitlement for you; the belief the normal rules don’t apply.

Murray, in contrast, has described getting the vaccine as a “no-brainer” and, while he has been forced to adapt to life shutting down in many ways for the last two years, he knows he is in a more privileged position than most.

As he said last summer: “It isn’t much fun going and staying in the bubbles.

“In Miami, for example, you look out of the window and the whole city’s completely open, but the players are obviously in the bubble. I can appreciate from the players’ perspective that that can be frustrating.

Neil Drysdale: Andy Murray deserves his place with the ‘Big Four’ in modern tennis

“But if you want to avoid having to be in a bubble for too long, you need to support the vaccination (programme), because you can’t just say: ‘No, we want to just live normally and we don’t want any bubbles, but we also don’t want to be vaccinated’. It’s a no-brainer to me.”

That’s a grown-up realistic reaction to the current situation. It’s the acceptance that, even if you are fit and healthy and might be able to withstand the impact of the virus, not everybody is as fortunate.

Andy Murray returned to tennis after major hip resurfacing surgery.

Murray might have 17 fewer Grand Slam titles than his rival, but he commands a lot more respect from most of his peers for his support of women’s rights and other progressive movements.

Tennis will survive without Djokovic as it did without McEnroe, Borg, Sampras and eventually Federer, Nadal and Murray. Nobody’s ever bigger than their sport and the caravan rolls on.

The chances are the Serb will lift another major and be revered by his fans. It might even happen in Australia, because he’s a fantastic professional on court. But a pretty amateur person off it.

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