Polarising Novak Djokovic is set to complete extraordinary revenge arc

There was a familiar pitch to the noise from the crowd as Novak Djokovic emerged at Melbourne Park on Friday to walk himself through the largely ceremonial motions of a 10th Australian Open semi-final victory. There is a distinctive Djokovic sound these days: not exactly cheers or jeers but a kind of mixed static, a fuzz of generalised feelings, event glamour, gawp energy.

Some hostile shouts from the bleachers drew a look of slight dismay across that imperial visage, visible only in TV closeup. And what does Djokovic look like these days? Physically unchanged for a start, still the same vision of extreme hyper-elastic conditioning. He still looks a bit like a tennis ball, with that immaculate fuzz-cut hair, the fine straight nose, the mischievous eyes.

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But there is another quality now in this, his mature, controversialist period, the wellness guru years. For 10 years Djokovic was the least prepossessing of the big three tennis alpha males. The other guy. The default option. And yet aged 35 he is now on the verge of completing one of the most mind-bogglingly cinematic narrative arcs in sporting history. Albeit one that is already a little underplayed and soft pedalled due to its uncomfortable politics. Can we go there now? Can we dip a hand in this thing and glory just a little in the details, enjoy this theatre of pure sporting vengeance? Because like it or not, this is already one of the most extraordinary stories modern sport has produced.

Djokovic went on to take his semi-final in straight sets against Tommy Paul of the US, who sounds like a composite YouTube frat-boy but is also an excellent mover and did manage to profit from some ragged unforced errors in the first set.

By the end Djokovic was playing at something close to his most irresistible pitch, a level of intensity and precision where the opponent basically becomes irrelevant, an ominous prospect for Stefanos Tsitsipas on Sunday afternoon. And it is probably worth offering a recap at his stage, if only because it all seems so improbable. Djokovic played his first-round match at this tournament a year to the day after arriving back in Serbia, deported by the Australian government as a danger to public health, likely to inspire civil unrest by his mere presence.

At the time Australia demanded full vaccination for visitors or a cast-iron excuse. There was a maddening arrogance to Djokovic’s sloppy attempts – he is unvaccinated – to enter under a bogus medical exemption. His visa was cancelled. He was demonised by some, swept into much wider tides of social unrest and polarised politics.

Now, a year on, we have this, a 35-year-old scything his way through the tournament in a haze of righteous fury. Earlier in the draw Djokovic vaporised Alex de Minaur, one of his most public critics last year, and was unapologetically gleeful in victory. Also on that list is Scott Morrison, Australia’s then prime minister who undoubtedly used Djokovic as an election lever last summer, marching his anti-vax boy around the place in a headlock, crowing on Twitter about Getting Tough.

Morrison still lost his election. Australia’s travel ban for the unvaccinated was junked shortly after, the same month Djokovic won Wimbledon. Is it wrong, is it weak, is it politically suspect to appreciate the dark pleasure in this revenger’s story, the extraordinary dramatic arc? Is this all forbidden fruit, a tennis version of the good bits with the devil in Paradise Lost that you’re not supposed to enjoy?

Fans wave Serbian flags during Novak Djokovic’s semi-final victory over Tommy Paul.
Fans wave Serbian flags during Novak Djokovic’s semi-final victory over Tommy Paul. Photograph: Andy Cheung/Getty Images

As ever there is a deeply polarised aspect to this. Djokovic became a kind of freedom warrior icon during his wrangle with Australia’s border force, another note in that schematic that runs all the way from a sensible distrust of systems through crypto, Bill Gates chat, full on alien paedo-ring stuff. There was more evidence this week of that weird anti-talent for catching the riptides of global politics as Djokovic’s dad was pictured celebrating with people carrying a flag with the head of Vladimir Putin. How long, you wonder, before this improbable magnetism strikes again, before we hear tales of Djokovic out there bulldozing the icecaps, exterminating snow leopards, diverting giant asteroids towards planet earth? The optics here, Novak. Can we just think about the optics for once?

And yet, of course, none of this stuff has ever really stood up to the most polarised take. Djokovic’s vaccine hesitancy wasn’t bound up in any coherent line of political thought. It was more a personal foible, related to his obsession with intake and purity. He remains, for example, a disciple of the wellness guru Chervin Jafarieh, who has a podcast with the amazingly terrible/brilliant name Wake The Fake Up, who starts each day with an hour and a half of trampolining followed by a mouthful of “longevity mushrooms”, and who basically wants to sell you his wellness products via Novak’s Instagram page.

Djokovic is vulnerable to this, is similarly obsessed with his own physicality, every microbe of his diet mapped and scrutinised. This is the superpower that has transformed him into this ageing marvel of twang and flex and tensile strength. Is it a surprise that this being who is nine-tenths celery juice doesn’t want to inject something novel into his arm?

It still feels like an oddity, a misstep, a confusion of incoherent voices, that Djokovic should have become such a divisive figure, an embodiment more than any other athlete of the polarised rage of modern public life, a divide between condemnatory rage or unquestioning hero-worship. What is certain is that he remains utterly magnetic on court, a miracle of balance and control, hitting the ball from a mind of coil, taking tiny little whispering dance steps so light you barely hear him move, and that victory on Sunday would complete a most extraordinary personal arc, a feat of pure sporting will that deserves a little space to be marvelled at.