THEY say Novak Djokovic plays at his best when under pressure – that the men’s tennis world number one isn’t fazed by break points, boisterous crowds or being one grand slam away from making history. The Association of Tennis Professionals is constantly crunching the numbers to calculate the “Under Pressure Rating” of players, and Djokovic is up there with diamonds.

It will be interesting to see how he performs in front of crowds of Australian tennis fans over the next few weeks, following his spell in a detention hotel with no access to his personal chef, a tennis court or a good night’s sleep. That’s assuming he isn’t flung out of the country before the competition begins.

“Pressure is a privilege, my friend,” the champion told journalists last summer during the Tokyo Olympics, after being asked about the psychological strain of competing at the highest level of professional sport. The question followed the withdrawal of champion US gymnast Simone Biles (below), who cited a need to focus on her mental health, although it should be stressed that Djokovic was speaking only for himself.

The National: Simone Biles

He had a tantrum on court shortly afterwards, hurling a racquet into the spectator-free stands before exiting the tournament without a single medal. Oh dear.

I’m sure he was not feeling at all privileged when taking delivery of his detention-centre meals, which were reportedly gluten-free in line with his request but unlikely to have been charged with the kind of positive mental energy a winner needs. Did anyone even think to pray in the direction of his drinking water? In a 2020 interview the tennis ace asserted that “scientists have proven that molecules in the water react to our emotions, to what is being said,” so I sincerely hope no-one the hotel kitchen was muttering “who the hell does this punk think he is?” while filling up his jug.

In case it’s not already clear, Djokovic is not merely a highly accomplished ball-hitter but also a scholar of science, nutrition and theology. The results of his training regime speak for themselves, so it is not for us ignoramuses to question, for example, whether placing a slice of bread onto someone’s stomach is a reliable method for diagnosing gluten intolerance, or whether we can “raise the vibration of the planet” by “reaching a higher frequency through self-care”.

There was certainly a dearth of good vibes from border officials when Djokovic touched down in Australia, armed with a medical exemption to the country’s strict rules requiring incomers to be vaccinated. The decision of Tennis Australia to grant him a temporary visa on the grounds of a recent Covid diagnosis did not cut the mustard, and so began his ordeal. At the time of writing he’s back on a tennis court, and I’m sure a luxury pillow awaits his head when he’s ready to readjust his frequency.

Meanwhile, those who have been campaigning for years about the conditions in Australian detention centres – where some asylum seekers have been held for many years – will be hoping the plight of those detainees receives even 1% of the attention given to the man who is, appropriately enough, often known as the Djoker.

The National: Novak Djokovic

There’s an important debate to be had about the ethics of requiring vaccination as a condition of any form of employment (or participation in tournaments as a professional sportsman), but Djokovic is not the ideal poster-boy for those arguing that personal choice should trump community interest. It’s one thing to decline vaccination yourself, or to stand up for the rights of those who make the same choice, but it’s another to use your public profile to spout new-age quackery and vaccine scepticism, then try to flout the rules that mere mortals must follow – even if you do think those rules are unjust.

Let us not forget that Djokovic initially responded to the Covid pandemic by helping to organise the Adria Tour, a series of exhibition games that was to be staged in five different cities in the Balkans and raise money for charity. Commentators reacted in horror to scenes of players hugging, high-fiving and dancing together, and crowds packed into makeshift stands – but Djokovic dismissed them as Western-centric, insisting Serbia had “better numbers” than other countries such as the United States and that he was following government guidance.

Predictably, the event had to be abandoned after one of the players, Grigor Dimitrov, confirmed he had tested positive. Numerous others went on to confirm they had Covid, including Djokovic, his wife and his coach. Undaunted, Djokovic brushed off criticism relating to this “Grand Slam of Covid”, insisting he was the victim of a media witch-hunt.

Perhaps he’ll emit a similar bleat if he reads the op-ed titled “Did Djoker lie?” in The Australian. Sports reporter Will Swanton notes how convenient it was for the champ to test positive exactly two weeks before he intended to fly out for the Australian Open. Noting the flurry of engagements he appears to have fulfilled in the run-up to Christmas, Swanton writes: “Either Djokovic lied on his visa application, or he was doing his level best to give the virus to the boss of the Serbian National Postal Service and assorted Serbian children.”

Djokovic once told how he wept with guilt for days after having elbow surgery, because he believes “our bodies are self-healing mechanisms.” He appears to have recovered well from his alleged recent dose of Covid, but is his conscience clear?