Novak Djokovic is back on top as world number one after an abdominal injury forced rival Rafael Nadal, the previous number one, to withdraw from the Rolex Paris Masters. Djokovic officially becomes number one tomorrow, although he lost the Paris finaltoday to the latest tennis hotshot, Russia’s Karen Khachanov, 7-5, 6-4.
Normally, I’d be ecstatic with Nole’s return to top form. At the moment, though, I’m troubled. He and Nadal are still scheduled to play an exhibition match in the new King Salman Tennis Championship in, yes, Saudi Arabia. As if to drive home the point, the tournament – a year in the making – was announced after the Saudi murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It’s clear the Saudis are counting on Rafanole, as fans call the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry, to provide some luster to the tarnished House of Saud. But should it?
Nadal and Djokovic have said they are waiting for more information; fans have drawn attention to the atrocities in other countries on the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) tour; apolitical types have noted that athletes have a right to be, well, apolitical. But you can’t twist this one into a pretzel. Khashoggi died a horrible death at the hands of the regime led by King Salman’s favorite son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. What more information do Nadal and Djokovic need?
Pressure on the pair to withdraw is growing. Add the name of outspoken commentator and former world number one Martina Navratilova to the chorus of those who want the two to withdraw. And Tennis magazine’s Steve Tignor writes:
“The story has been compared, rightfully, to the decision that John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg faced in 1980, when they were offered $1 million each—the most in tennis history at the time—to come to South Africa to play an exhibition that was billed as a Grand Slam tiebreaker. Borg had won at Wimbledon that year, and McEnroe at the US Open. This best-of-five-set match at Sun City would be the putative decider.
“But there was another, older, wiser player who had something to say about it. Arthur Ashe, a longtime anti-apartheid activist, wrote a column in The Washington Post criticizing the idea and urged McEnroe’s father, who doubled as his manager, to have his 21-year-old son drop out. The McEnroes eventually agreed. In a recent interview, John Jr. said he has never regretted the decision.”
Recently, I interviewed Raymond Arsenault, author of the epic new biography of Ashe, “Arthur Ashe: A Life” (Simon & Schuster, 767 pages, $37.50), who said Ashe would be “appalled” by Rafanole’s stalling. Ashe’s relationship with South Africa was more complex than Tignor’s column suggests. For years, Arsenault writes, Ashe tried to get a visa to play there as a way to change hearts and minds in the racially divided country. But playing there didn’t change the situation.
Rafanole could play in Saudi Arabia and donate the $1 million each will receive to the starving children of Yemen, whose horrific situation is the result of American-backed Saudi bombing. But would that send the right message to Saudi Arabia, that you don’t get to enjoy the niceties of the community of nations when you act outside it?
There’s more to being number one, as Djokovic well knows, than being number one.
There’s also the moral responsibility that comes with it. Regardless of what you think of their personalities, Djokovic and Nadal, following in Roger Federer’s footsteps, have shown themselves to be men who lead by example.
Will they continue to do so?