Entertainment, Sports

Australian Open not living up to ‘Happy Slam’ nickname with Novak Djokovic saga

THE Australian Open’s nickname of the “Happy Slam”, so-called because of the joyful, festive energy that surges through Melbourne Park every year, could not be further from the current reality. 

The Novak Djokovic will he-won’t he play saga, which has dominated both front and back pages for well over a week now, has ensured the build-up to the first grand slam of the season has been engulfed by bickering, bitterness, anger and, perhaps worst of all, political game-playing. 

The story that, at the time of writing anyway, Djokovic will not defend his Australian Open title following the cancellation of his visa by the country’s immigration minister, Alex Hawke, is unlike anything seen before. 

While it is the world number one who is bearing the brunt of this decision – he will now not have the opportunity to surpass Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer and reach 21 grand slam titles, and he may also now be banned from entering Australia for three years – the Serb’s actions over the past few weeks have highlighted an ugly side of sport. 

Recent years have seen a resurgence in athlete activism; from taking the knee to speaking up about LGBTQ rights, there has been something of a surge in confidence from sportspeople to put their neck on the line and speak up for what they believe is right. 

What the pandemic has uncovered, however, is a less palatable side of this wave of activism. 

Djokovic’s situation is, of course, at the forefront currently, but he is one of many multi-millionaire, superstar athletes who are loath to put aside their selfishness for even a minute. 

Selfishness is an important, perhaps even essential, quality for anyone seeking to reach the top of their sport. 

Without a prominent selfish streak, sporting success is almost impossible. 

But there has to be a point when athletes realise the entitlement they feel must be set aside. 

Andy Murray gets it. So, too, does Rafa Nadal. Both have spoken about the importance of being vaccinated against Covid for the good of others. 

This goes further than merely being vaccinated, though. 

Playing sport in a pandemic, and particularly one which earns certain individuals millions of dollars, is a privilege, not a right. 

Djokovic is not the only one who seems to have lost sight of this. 

There are numerous high-profile athletes who have used their elevated platforms to spout pseudo-science and conspiracy theories. 

Athletes saying stupid things is nothing new.  

Since time immemorial, sportspeople have said daft things and they will continue to do so. 

But the feeling of entitlement of these elite athletes to promote anti-vax, anti-science views during a pandemic is not only irresponsible, it’s dangerous. 

I’ve long been one who’s supported athletes getting involved in more than merely sport. 

In the case of taking the knee, while it’s far from solved the problem of racism, it has attracted a level of publicity to the cause that few other areas of life could match. 

However, there has to be a line drawn somewhere. 

Athletes, no matter how entitled they believe themselves to be, must find a shred of self-awareness from somewhere and realise that their actions have the potential to do incalcuable harm. 

Djokovic’s decision to try to travel to Australia unvaccinated, despite not meeting the requirements for an exemption, has hurt his career. 

When, though, will he realise that his feelings of entitlement may have done much more damage than that. 

AND ANOTHER THING… 

The return to the Grand Slam stage of Emma Raducanu is, in all likelihood, going to a serious reality check for the teenager. 

The hype surrounding her US Open win last September has, quite understandably, been colossal and the criticism about her making the most of the opportunities presented to her following her maiden major title has been wholly unjustified. 

It is on the tennis court that she should be judged.  

However, don’t expect this season, and this grand slam in particular, to tell us much about anything when it comes to how her career is going to pan out in the long run. 

Raducanu may be seeded 17 at the upcoming Australian Open but in the first round she will face a fellow US Open champ, 2017 winner, Sloane Stephens. 

With Raducanu coming off the back of a complete drubbing in her only warm-up tournament, she is not exactly carrying bags of momentum into Melbourne Park. 

The odds are that she will fail to overcome Stephens and will be on a flight home in the coming days but if that scenario does transpire, little, if anything should be read into it. 

In fact, almost nothing should be read into this season at all. 

It’s an often repeated maxim that it’s easier to get to the top than it is to stay there and there are few who would disagree. 

Particularly for someone like Raducanu, whose rise to the top was literally the quickest ever seen in the history of her sport, she is currently occupying something of an artificial position in terms of her world ranking. 

Yes, she has the game to beat most, if not quite every player on the tour. 

But she is far from the point of being able to do it consistently, as well as doing it when she’s not at her best which, as every top player knows, is the secret to success far more than being able to show flashes of brilliance now and again. 

Raducanu’s first full season on the tour is likely to come as something of a shock to the system. 

That, however, should not be a reason for panic.

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