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Heading into Wimbledon, Novak Djokovic's vaccine stance could cost him all-time Grand Slam record

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There have been strange periods throughout the career of Novak Djokovic where his motivation waxed and waned, his body didn’t cooperate or his temper got him thrown out of a U.S. Open he would have been heavily favored to win. But never has Djokovic tried to navigate as complicated a moment as the 2022 season has brought upon him.

Despite still being considered the best player in the world and the favorite heading into Wimbledon, which begins Monday, he has lost the No. 1 ranking and will slip further regardless of what he does over the next two weeks (more on that in a moment). After finally tying Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal with 20 major titles last July and having a shot to win the calendar Grand Slam, he surprisingly finds himself now two behind Nadal. And unless the U.S. government changes its policy barring people who haven’t had a COVID-19 vaccination from entering the country, Djokovic will not be in New York for the U.S. Open this year or perhaps ever again.

“I’m aware of that, and that is an extra motivation to do well here,” Djokovic said Saturday in his pre-Wimbledon news conference. “So hopefully I can have a very good tournament as I have done in the last three editions and then I’ll just have to wait and see. I’d love to go to the States, but as of today that’s not possible and there’s not much I can do anymore. It’s really up to the U.S. government to make a decision whether they allow unvaccinated people to go into the country.”

It is abundantly clear that Djokovic has no intention of getting vaccinated and is prepared to skip half the Grand Slams (and several other significant tournaments) if the U.S. and Australia continue to have strict vaccine mandates for visitors entering their borders.

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Novak Djokovic reacts to a point during his match against Diego Schwartzman at the French Open.
Novak Djokovic reacts to a point during his match against Diego Schwartzman at the French Open.

On one hand, his adherence to principle is admirable. After believing that he had an exemption to play the Australian Open in January, only to get deported after a week-long political saga, Djokovic understands the consequences of being unvaccinated and is willing to live with them regardless of what it means for his career. On the other hand, it is absolutely bizarre that a 35-year old tennis player with an opportunity to rewrite all the significant records in his sport would squander some of his last, best chances to win these tournaments because he won’t get the same safe, effective shot as 5 billion people around the world.

As COVID-19 becomes more of an endemic virus, restrictions have been relaxed in many places. There is now no requirement, for instance, to show a negative test before entering the U.S., so at some point perhaps countries will also drop vaccine requirements. But maybe they won’t, which would effectively render Djokovic as a part-time player in a sport he was dominating as recently as last year.

It is appropriate that Djokovic is seeded No. 1 given that he’s won the last three editions of the tournament and has six Wimbledon titles overall — just one shy of Pete Sampras and two behind Federer.

But Djokovic is actually No. 3 behind Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev in the world rankings, which are calculated on a rolling 12-month total, largely because he’s entered only six tournaments this year and was not allowed to play some big events that offer lots of ranking points like the Australian Open plus the two big American spring tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami.

Djokovic is also poised to lose the 2000 points he won for last year’s Wimbledon title, as the ATP Tour stripped the tournament of ranking points as punishment for its unilateral decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players from entering due to the war in Ukraine. If Djokovic can’t come to North America for the hardcourt swing and the U.S. Open due to the vaccine requirements, he will almost certainly drop out of the top 10 this summer — even if he wins Wimbledon.

Ranking points, as he said Saturday, are not Djokovic’s priority at this stage of his career. He already holds the record for most weeks at No. 1, which isn’t in danger of being broken by any of his contemporaries, and he’ll still be considered the best in the world as long as he performs to his capability at the tournaments he is allowed to enter.

But it will be difficult for Djokovic to maintain his status as one of the sport’s leading figures if he’s being relegated to a handful of events a year in Europe and the Middle East — not to mention the impact on his tennis.

After the Australia debacle, it was a real struggle for Djokovic to get back into form. He only started playing up to his standards at the Italian Open in May, making it seem like he was ready for the rigor of the French Open. But in his quarterfinal matchup against Nadal, he was strangely flat and did not seem to have the same competitive stamina he did a year earlier necessarily to outlast his rival on clay.

Djokovic’s coach Goran Ivanisevic told Tennis Majors after the French Open it was “incomprehensible” the way he played after winning the second set.

“It was like he lacked energy and like he did not believe sufficiently that he could win,” Ivanisevic said. “You cannot allow that to yourself against Rafa.”

Djokovic hasn’t played an official match since, which not unusual for him leading up to Wimbledon. He noted Saturday that he’s had a lot of “success with adapting quickly to the surface,” and the reality is that his experience gives him a huge advantage over a lot of the younger contenders who haven’t quite figured out grass yet.

Also in Djokovic’s favor is a relatively easy draw until the quarterfinals and not having to face either Nadal or Matteo Berrettini, who has become a standout player on grass, until the final.

For those reasons, he’s a heavy favorite to win his 21st Grand Slam title and get back within one of Nadal for the all-time record.

But after that, unless governments change their rules, Djokovic might be forced to disappear from the majors until next year’s French Open. At a time when the all-time Grand Slam race should be at the peak of its competitiveness, his vaccine status might render it a moot point.

That’s not good for tennis, nor his legacy, nor the legitimacy of the history books. But as he made clear once again before this Wimbledon begins, Djokovic’s mind is made up -- for better or worse.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Novak Djokovic's vaccine stance could cost him Grand Slam record