Novak Djokovic, the No. 1 ranked men’s tennis player in the world, said that everybody has a right to express their sexual orientation as he lent his support behind a male tennis player one day coming out as gay.
Djokovic, 31, made his comments during the ATP World Tour Finals in London earlier this month. Shortly after his round-robin win over Alexander Zverev, the 14-time grand slam champion said a male player coming out would be a “courageous move.” At present, there are no out professional men’s tennis players.
“I wouldn’t have anything against that, absolutely,” Djokovic replied when asked what his reaction be if a fellow player came out.
“It’s everybody’s right to have sexual orientation as they desire, any kind of direction in life they desire. I respect it.”
“I don’t see people differently if they come out like that. I actually see that as a really courageous move,” said Djokovic, who finished runner-up at the ATP Finals. “We live in a society ... [where] certain parts of the world are not ready to accept that.”
Djokovic is from Serbia, a country that has a checkered record when it comes to the LGBT community. In 2017 Ana Brnabic became Serbia’s first gay prime minister. However, she has been criticized for failing to reduce the number of attacks on gay people and for not pursuing LGBT issues. Same-sex activity in the country has been legal since 1994, but same-sex marriage and adoption are not legal.
The most high-profile player on the ATP tour to reveal his sexuality in the Open Era was Brian Vahaly, but he did so after he retired from the sport. Vahaly peaked at a ranking best of 64th in 2003 and won five titles on the Challenger Tour.
Vahaly said that he didn’t discuss his personal life as an athlete due to fears that it could have a negative impact on his sponsorships and relationships with fellow players on the tour. Vahaly retired from tennis in 2006 and came out in 2017.
Out LGBT female tennis players are more represented, including Alison Van Uytvanck of Belgium, Johanna Larsson of Sweden, Dutch player Richel Hogenkamp, Thailand’s Luksika Kumkhum and Conny Perrin of Switzerland.
Historically, there have been few openly gay players in men’s tennis. Francisco Rodriguez, who reached a ranking high of 373rd, came out in 2008 after retiring from the tour. Meanwhile, 1920s tennis superstar Bill Tilden was also gay, but never publicly declared it due to the perception of homosexuality during that time.
In contrast, the women’s tour has an array of openly LGBT athletes, including pioneers such as Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King and more recent stars such as Amélie Mauresmo and Jana Novotná.