Star-Power Insistence

Unvaccinated Novak Djokovic is hell-bent on participating in this year’s Australian Open, largely through his standing as “the world’s number 1 tennis player”. Will his audacity enhance his appeal among brands behind his multi-million sponsorship deals?

By Lester Fang

The world is screwed. That much we know. The COVID pandemic has destructed civic life as much as the vaccine needed to bring about its end has divided it. Despite the climate problems we now face that may one day wipe us all off the surface of this earth, we have to preface that gloomy prediction by being caught between two opposing human forces: those who have accepted vaccination—and are inoculated—against the COVID virus (and the subsequent mutants) and those who have not and their dead refusal to receive it. I have not met an anti-vaxxer before. That is why the Serbian Novak Djokovic’s situation and defiance in Australia is so spine-straightening to me. Will he really get to play on Monday, and show the world how exceptional he really is—so out of the ordinary that he should be able to bypass immigration policies of a sovereign land when you and I would not be able to?

Let me lay it out: I am no tennis fan. Okay, to be more accurate, I am no fan of any tennis player, regardless of his world ranking. That kind of thing just does not impress me. Nor, how many pairs of shoes one can sell. Therefore, the individual known as Ye has not been able to make a fan out of me with his Yeezys, even less now that his name is the first syllable of Yeshua. No one is ever that big in stature and in wealth to be above immigration requirements of any independent state. Nor, is he able to impress the world by hiring a lawyer to fight his case in court, and then admit to failings, such as knowing that he tested positive when, last month, he attended a newspaper interview and photoshoot at his tennis centre in Serbia. And, in an unsurprising blame game, that his “agent” had conveniently made a mistake in a travel form. But we’re supposed to believe that Mr Djokovic is not a no one.

“It’s very clear that Novak Djokovic is one of the best players of the history, without a doubt. But there is no one player in history that’s more important than an event.”

Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal was a beacon of reason when he told the media in a pre-tournament press conference, “It’s very clear that Novak Djokovic is one of the best players of the history, without a doubt. But there is no one player in history that’s more important than an event.” The spotlight now cast on Mr Djokovic unfortunately brightens his importance, as the player, the anti-vaxxer, and the exceptional. One tennis enthusiast friend of mine, a Roger Federer fan, agrees that the alienating refusenik should not be allowed to enter Australia because “he has not been honest with quite a few things in pertaining to his entry requirement, particularly his vaccination status”.

To me, Mr Djokovic’s border behaviour borders on the bratty. He is already a polarising player in Centre Court, he does not need to remind us why some of us won’t buy his pathetic stand as victim in an airport. Sure, many people can’t bear watching the Australian Open without him competing (his 21st Grand Slam title is at stake), but there are those of us who can’t take his refusal to be vaccinated half way across the world and insist he is to be treated differently from others who respect the entry requirements of foreign nations. Some supportive members of the media say that Mr Djokovic’s “reception (at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport) was not what the world’s No. 1 player anticipated”. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic even charged the Australian government for “mistreating” Serbia’s national pride. Australia is known to have one of the toughest border controls in the world (my mother was once almost denied entry for having on her a packet of peanuts distributed on the aircraft earlier that she did not finish!). Yet, the “World’s No.1” did not anticipate the airport staff would simply do their job.

Uniqlo sponsored Novak Djokovic from 2012 to 2017

According to Forbes last year, Mr Djokovic’s endorsement deals amounted to a not unimpressive US$30 million. So far, no brand has indicated that distancing themselves from him is on the cards. His insistence to be allowed to play, I can only imagine, is admirable qualities. Only the Swiss watchmaker Hublot has released a statement, assuring the public—fans, surely—that their sponsorship for the tennis star remains intact and, in addition, that “Novak Djokovic is his own person”. As most brands know of his stand on vaccination, whatever he does now, even if it doesn’t gain applause, likely won’t change what they think the value his name could bring to a product. Negative publicity has not hurt him in the past, it is possible it won’t ruffle him now. In 2012, when Uniqlo’s sponsorship of Mr Djokovic was announced, Tadashi Yanai, Chairman, President & CEO of Fast Retailing, said, “Uniqlo and Novak share a common, mutual desire to improve people’s lives and contribute to society”. What has happened in Melbourne since 6 January appear to contradict that view.

Mr Djokovic does not share headline space with luxury brands such as that between Naomi Osaka and Louis Vuitton. He is not, to me, the Christiano Ronaldo of the tennis world. He won’t, therefore, be on the marketing radar of, say, Kering. The most prestigious fashion brand to support him is Lacoste. The five-year sponsorship, which he accepted after the deal with Uniqlo (which came after Sergio Tacchini, 2009—2012) ended, is reported to be worth US$9.4 million annually till this year. Other non-garment sponsorships include the American label Head for racquets and the Japanese Asics for shoes, and, of course, Hublot for the timepiece(s). These brands’ no-reaction to the happenings in Melbourne of the past ten days, I am certain, would not have vaccinated fashionistas up in arms. By most indications, Novak Djokovic won’t go under Down Under.

Update (16 January 2022, 15:00): Novak Djokovic has lost his desperate court appeal against the cancellation of his visa. He will be deported from Australia just as he is looking forward to defending his Australian Open championship tomorrow evening.

Illustration: Just So. Photo: