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How an innocent Novak Djokovic comment was twisted by the media to suggest he attacked Simone Biles over her mental health struggles

Novak Djokovic is facing the wrath of the media for something he didn't even do
Novak Djokovic is facing the wrath of the media for something he didn't even do
Mihir Gawade
ANALYST

In Novak Djokovic's own words, "pressure is a privilege". But what has transpired over the past 72 hours is not a privilege of any kind; instead, it can only be termed an unfair and unjustified result of being a successful and famous athlete.

The 20-time Major winner saw his dreams of winning an Olympic gold come to an end on Friday as he lost in the semifinals of both men's singles and mixed doubles. Djokovic would eventually leave Tokyo without a medal at all, losing in the singles bronze medal match to Pablo Carreno Busta and then being forced to withdraw from his mixed doubles playoff due to shoulder injury and fatigue.

What followed, however, could only have come from the imagination of a sadist. Novak Djokovic has received non-stop criticism, trolling and abuse from all corners of organized media as well as social media over the last couple of days, and for something that he didn't even do.

The vitriol being spewed against the Serb is so intense and extreme that even fans who hate him on regular days have had to come to his defense.

Djokovic's fault in all of this? An innocuous quote that has been misinterpreted, misquoted and misused by members of the media.

After his third-round match Novak Djokovic was asked a simple question about the pressure of dealing with the ambition of a 'Calendar Golden Slam' - which the Serb was then going for. Djokovic answered that by referring to no one but himself, and framed it around the question that was asked - on the topic of the Golden Slam.

But this was misinterpreted (or maybe intentionally misquoted to stir controversy) as "Novak Djokovic's take on Simone Biles' withdrawal", and reported by a string of publications as such.

Even reputed tennis journalists posted the comment without any context, thus fuelling the assumption that Djokovic was talking about Biles.

As they say, misinformation spreads at twice the speed of factual information and draws twice the attention. And Novak Djokovic once again ended up on the receiving end of the damage caused by malicious gossip.

Were Novak Djokovic's words really aimed at Simone Biles?

Simone Biles withdrew from the final round of her Gymnactics events citing mental health reasons
Simone Biles withdrew from the final round of her Gymnactics events citing mental health reasons

Four-time Olympic gold-medalist and American gymnastics legend Simone Biles withdrew from the final round of her individual events at the Tokyo Olympics, citing mental health concerns. And that wasn't the first time an Olympic medalist had opened up on their mental health struggles while dealing with the pressures that come with being so successful.

But in the social media age, where everything has to be brutally scrutinized, Biles' act was also discussed, debated and opined upon for days together.

The left-leaning media and mental health activists came to the 24 year-old's defense, and fought for her right to put mental health above sporting glory. But they also started attaching any remotely relevant quote from any prominent personality to the Biles issue.

Novak Djokovic, the No. 1 tennis player in the world who has won all three Majors played this year, was also asked about the pressure an athlete faces in light of Biles' withdrawal. His reply was simple, as he spoke about how he looks at competitive sport and how he has always dealt with the pressure which comes with it.

"Without pressure there is no professional sport," Djokovic said. "If you are aiming to be at the top of the game you better start learning how to deal with pressure. And how to cope with those moments on the court but also off the court, all the expectations."

As Novak Djokovic's quote came only a short while after Simone Biles announced her withdrawal, the two completely unrelated pieces of information - due to the sheer coincidence of being on the same sensitive issue - were conflated and presented as one being in response to the other.

The idealists on social media and in news studios also weren't happy with Novak Djokovic showing negative emotion - throwing his racket into empty stands and smashing it into the net - while losing during his bronze medal match to Pablo Carreno Busta.

"Pressure is a privilege," Djokovic was also quoted as saying in reply to the same question.

The anti-Djokovic army took particular offense at this statement from the tennis legend. They were apparently perplexed at how someone who considers pressure a privilege could react in the way Djokovic did, unable to control his emotions when under the pressure of losing out on a medal.

Of course, genuine tennis fans know that Novak Djokovic has looked at pressure as a privilege on numerous occasions and come out flying. But that's beside the point.

The question posed to Novak Djokovic didn't ask him to comment on Simone Biles' situation. And Djokovic's reply didn't mention Biles, nor did it obliquely reference her. Everything Djokovic was asked and everything Djokovic answered was about himself; not about Biles or even about mental health in general.

The person who asked Djokovic the question, Sudipto Ganguly of Reuters, himself issued a clarification on Thursday that the Serb's comments were taken out of context. But his comment fell on deaf ears, and people on Twitter continued to spread Djokovic's quote in conjunction with Biles' mental health.

Never mind the fact that Novak Djokovic is actually one of the few sporting stars to have come out in support of athletes prioritizing their mental health.

The Serb was recently seen defending fellow tennis champ Naomi Osaka after the Japanese expressed a reluctance to attend press conferences due to the toll they take on her mental health. And Djokovic has himself, in the past, openly talked about his motivational struggles upon reaching the pinnacle of the sport.

What about Novak Djokovic's own mental health?

Novak Djokovic supported Naomi Osaka for her brave stand on mental health
Novak Djokovic supported Naomi Osaka for her brave stand on mental health

It is entirely possible that Novak Djokovic had no idea about Simone Biles' withdrawal when he answered the question, since he had two matches to play that day along with press duties to fulfill. Perhaps if he knew of the circumstances, he would have framed his answer differently. Or perhaps he knew of Biles' withdrawal but simply didn't expect that his answer would be connected by the media to her incident.

Novak Djokovic simply fell victim to being in the wrong place and saying the right thing, but at the wrong time.

He didn't "lecture" anyone on mental strength or on dealing with the pressures of being a top professional athlete. And he certainly didn't attack Simone Biles for prioritizing her mental health.

Preachers of mental health championing the highly sensitive cause on social media should first fact-check a quote before blatantly villainizing someone. They need to realize they are effectively causing harm to the person's mental health by going after them for something they never did.

Novak Djokovic, despite being one of the biggest champions the sporting world has ever seen, is still vulnerable to psychological stress caused by online trolling and abuse. It could just be a tweet for you, but it could be a dagger for someone on the receiving end of mass abuse - especially when that someone has done absolutely nothing wrong.


Edited by Musab Abid
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