Tennis stars’ vaccine response is selfish, blinkered and damaging to the sport

For the last 12 months, tennis has emitted a low grumbling sound, like a diesel engine idling at the lights. Listen closely, and you can hear dozens of fit young athletes grousing about the misery of the pandemic: the cancelled tournaments, the reduced prize money, and above all the quarantines.

Should we have sympathy for their plight, or should we pull out our imaginary violins? Well, it’s true that tennis has suffered more than any other major sport, because it is uniquely global – far more so than golf, for instance – and thus dependent on international travel. But then the players go and remind us how out of touch, and how monumentally selfish, many of them actually are.

The latest instance came this week in Miami, where the enterprising New York Times reporter Ben Rothenberg asked half-a-dozen press-conference guinea pigs whether they were planning to be vaccinated. He encountered a wall of scepticism.

Not everyone is against. World No 2 Naomi Osaka said “I’m planning on getting one … whenever I’m eligible.” But Andrey Rublev and Elina Svitolina both stressed that there was no advantage to them in having a jab, as it wouldn’t save them from future bio-bubbles and quarantines. Meanwhile Aryna Sabalenka spouted some mumbo-jumbo about damage to the genetic code.

Finally, Diego Schwartzman said “It’s not a tradition in my family to get any vaccine” before later backtracking and blaming his English for any misunderstanding.

The first thing to say here is that athletes are uniquely paranoid about what they put in their bodies. Indeed, they are taught to be that way by the World Anti-Doping Agency. So at a time when Germany has suspended AstraZeneca injections for under-60s over blood clot fears, one can forgive them for feeling twitchy.

But then you look at their answers again, and blood clots make no appearance. The first two negatives cited a lack of personal advantage. This misses the fact that – for the young and healthy – vaccinations are not supposed to be about you. They are about the vulnerable people you could unintentionally infect.

You can see the personal logic here. For the likes of Rublev and Svitolina, stepping off the tour to get a jab will lead to lost training days and travel issues. From a pragmatic perspective, the experience of actually contracting the virus is likely to be so trivial that they would be better off picking it up on the road. What this position ignores is that infection makes them a danger to public health.

And then there is Sabalenka, who said “There is the two [vaccines], and I want to make the one I think is more expensive and the one is not going to your genetic stuff.” This sounds like a half-baked theory found on the internet. It thus fits in with the pattern of gullibility exhibited by Novak Djokovic since he became tennis’s first vaccine sceptic just under a year ago. We could point to a different kind of contagion here; that of bogus, pseudo-scientific ideas.

Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic (ATP Number 1) gives a press conference on the upcoming Adria Tour tennis tournament in Belgrade on May 25, 2020. - Djokovic will bring together international tennis stars Dominic Thiem (ATP Number 3), Alexander Zverev (ATP Number 7) and Grigor Dimitrov (ATP Number 19) to Belgrade in early June for the first in a series of humanitarian tournaments that he will organized in the Balkan


The Djokovic-organised Adria Tour last year was a PR disaster for the Serb


Credit: AFP/ANDREJ ISAKOVIC 

Tennis once again finds itself uniquely vulnerable, to misinformation this time. The players are headstrong young athletes who run their own mini-team of coaches, physios and fitness trainers. It’s hard for their support staff to guide them when they make all the money and call all the shots.

Yes, you could say the same about golfers. But tennis players tend to leave school earlier, often before puberty, and thus complete very little formal education.

Rothenberg’s questions prompted enough debate around the world for both tours to issue a statement. The Women’s Tennis Association said that they were not interested in interfering because “this is a personal decision we respect.” The men’s tour are talking to “consultants in infectious disease and virology”.

Sooner or later, one expects that a big event – perhaps it could be next year’s Australian Open – will make vaccinations essential, and thus nudge the player base into complying for their own selfish reasons.

For the moment, though, many members of the locker-room are coming across as narcissistic and blinkered. The one person who has judged the public mood from the beginning is Rafael Nadal. In Melbourne, for instance, he undercut the chorus of outrage at two-week lockdowns by saying “You see how many people are losing their father, their mums, without having the chance to say goodbye … When you see all of this, you have to stay a little bit more positive.”

Nadal is a hugely respected elder statesman, someone who sees family and community as the most important values. You might remember him helping to clean up his home island of Majorca after deadly floods swept the capital a couple of years ago.

His peers have less life experience, for many have spent their entire lives in another sort of bubble: that provided by their agent, coach and trainer. Even so, they have had a year to consider the implications of the pandemic. And now they have switched from bemoaning their personal suffering to denigrating the only solution. There is something curiously childlike in this contradiction.

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