PRESS CONFERENCE: Novak Djokovic after his Monte Carlo defeat, which puts the world No. 1 at 2-2 on the season.

I don’t know what the reason is, but if you’re trying to be the best in history and you’re going to give up the race for some vaccines, you have to be the king of stupidity. Marcelo Rios, former world No. 1, on Novak’s Djokovic’s refusal to be vaccinated, in an interview with the Chilean newspaper La Tercera.


At age 46, Marcelo Rios still has a prodigious talent for sending shock waves through tennis. During a 10-year career abruptly halted in 2004 due to chronic back problems, Rios gained just as much notoriety for his unfiltered remarks and just plain rude behavior as he did for his piratical visage or his breathtaking, artful game.

It’s easy to dismiss Rios’s criticism of Novak Djokovic, who has played only four matches this year due to his doggedly-held anti-vaccination views, as so much white noise emanating from a renowned misanthrope. But Rios knows from experience just how quickly a career can run off the rails, and his willingness to say how he really feels makes him either refreshing or appalling, depending on how you feel about his opinions.

Speculation aside, one element in this hubbub is plain and simple fact: Djokovic may be back at No. 1 due to the quirks of the ranking system, but he looks nowhere near that standard. He is 34 and now trailing Rafael Nadal by one Grand Slam title in the great GOAT derby. The Serbian star hasn’t won a tournament since last November. His anti-vaxx stance is firm and to some it appears principled, but overall his reputation has taken an enormous hit. He presents as a tower of conviction and strength, but don’t for a moment think that all has been copasetic in Djokovic’s world.

Novak Djokovic said he "ran out of gas" against Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.

Novak Djokovic said he "ran out of gas" against Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.


“I hope I won’t play six matches in six months,” Djokovic said, half in jest, in his pre-tournament press conference at the Monte Carlo Masters, where he lost his opening match to Alejandro Davidovich Fokina. But he was far from jocular when he added, “The past three to four months have been really difficult for me, mentally and emotionally. But here I am. I’ll leave all that behind and move on.”

That may be easier said than done. A lot has changed in tennis since Djokovic drove his stake into the ground over Covid. Nadal mounted a credulity-straining resurgence this year, going 20-1 with three titles including the Australian Open. Barring unforeseen developments, he will be the odds-on favorite to win his 14th French Open title in about two months. That leaves Nadal and Djokovic looking like two trains heading in opposite directions in a sport that puts a premium on confidence and momentum.

Daniil Medvedev, who replaced Djokovic as world No. 1 briefly this year, is now among the elite. Perhaps more worrying for Djokovic, a raft of talented young players, led by phenom Carlos Alcaraz, are emerging rapidly to shore up an already dangerous cohort that includes: Casper Ruud, Slam-hungry Stefanos Tsitsipas, Andrey Rublev, Jannik Sinner, Matteo Berrettini and others.

Oh, and did someone say that 40-year-old Roger Federer is coming off a rigorous program of rehab and fitness following surgery?


Djokovic surely has noticed this shifting landscape. That will inject caution if not outright doubt into his calculations—a new and less comfortable way of thinking after the glory years leading up to the Covid lockdowns.

Rios, once a vaccine skeptic, took the jab after realizing it was the only way he could carry on with a normal life that includes a fair amount of travel. Djokovic did not arrive at the same conclusion and the final cost of that position has yet to be tallied. Rios said he initially sympathized with Djokovic, but as the drama and controversy mounted he changed his mind. “I believe that at first it was out of fear,” Rios said of Djokovic’s position. “But now he is being too arrogant.”

Djokovic has tried to project the sense that he is firmly in control of what he’s doing, and confident about its positive ultimate outcome. He told reporters in Monaco, “I don’t think it (the layoff) will leave insurmountable traces. Far from it. I’ll try to use it as fuel.”

But just days later, after losing to Davidovich Fokina, Djokovic told reporters: “I didn't like the way I felt physically in the third (set). I just ran out of the gas completely.”

Filling that tank up may be a more demanding undertaking than it may appear.