Recently, exercise physiologist Nick Tiller, PhD, has described much scientifically unsupported health information promoted by tennis champion Novak Djokovic. The dubious practices and beliefs Djokovic has promoted include:
- the TaoPatch, which he calls the biggest secret of his career and wore during the 2023 French Open. According to the manufacturer, this uses nanotechnology to “convert natural body heat into microscopic beams of light to stimulate the nervous system.”
- the Pyramid of the Sun, a hill in the Bosnian town of Visoko, said to have been built by an ancient civilization and enshrined with magical healing properties
- “energetic medicine” used by a practitioner who determined Djokovic’s arm strength was diminished when a piece of bread was pressed to his stomach
- “detoxifying” with beverages he prepares for his morning routine
- purifying “toxic” foods and polluted water through “energetical transformation”
- opposition to vaccination
When it comes to Grand Slam titles, Novak Djokovic has eclipsed every other male tennis player in history. But such prominence invites scrutiny, and in several competitions this past year, it was difficult to overlook a conspicuous device taped to Djokovic’s chest. The Italian manufacturer of TaoPatch claim their device uses nanotechnology to “convert natural body heat into microscopic beams of light to stimulate the nervous system.” They maintain that the device is supported by thousands of physicians and over fifty clinical studies, but of the eight studies cited on their website, only four were related to the device and only one was placebo controlled. Djokovic has called TaoPatch the biggest secret of his career, but scientists have called it nonsense. For Djokovic, it’s just the tip of a pseudoscience iceberg that, due to his notoriety, is creating a ripple effect throughout the sporting world. For instance, a five-year trend of “Tao Patch” searches on Google disclosed a huge spike in popularity that followed Djokovic’s use of this nonsensical device at the French Open in May/June 2023.
But Djokovic’s eccentric beliefs extend well beyond his athletic pursuits, including his diet. He purportedly has a gluten intolerance. Notwithstanding the contentious science on the condition and the fact that I am among the many experts that remain unconvinced that gluten intolerance even exists outside of celiac disease, the real peculiarity is the means by which Djokovic’s condition was diagnosed. Celiac is identified through a series of clinical assessments, including blood tests for immune markers, performed by primary care physicians or gastroenterologists. Djokovic, however, met with a self-proclaimed “specialist in energetic medicine,” who pressed a piece of bread to Djokovic’s stomach and tested his arm strength, determining it to be diminished when in proximity to gluten. The player now excludes gluten from his diet.
Djokovic’s distrust of modern medicine extends further: He played for several years with a persistent elbow injury that thwarted his performances. After lengthy procrastination during which he tried to manage the injury through “natural” means, he eventually traveled to Switzerland for surgery in 2018, making the statement “I was trying to avoid getting on that table because I am not a fan of surgeries or medications,” This sentiment is a common one: nature is good, synthetic is bad. But his appeal to nature was sadly misplaced. Since the surgery, Djokovic has won twenty-six tournaments.
Djokovic’s partiality for “natural” products is also manifested by his morning routine, which I quote “I start with warm water and lemon, so I can help my body detoxify.” Of course, the notion of “detox” is highly unscientific, an antiquated belief derived from a misunderstanding of how the body manages waste. I have debunked detoxes in a previous blog (https://mortontavel.com/what-are-the-most-popular-nutrition-myths/) but still the term haunts us. Djokovic continues: “Then I would have my smoothie, a green smoothie with different algae and different fruits and super-foods, great supplements that I use that allow me to have mental clarity, feel good, longevity, I guess, and different benefits on health.” I agree with the broad consumption of fruits and vegetables: as a society, we chronically under-consume them, and generally more is better. But the notion of a “super-food” is flawed. In fact, the term was banned in Europe almost two decades ago because, much like the “natural” label, the term “super-food” is completely unregulated, with no official or legal definition. It was conceived instead as a marketing ploy. And why green smoothies? Because nature is green, of course.
Djokovic’s delusions were further indulged as a professional athlete when he found Chervin Jafarieh—a self-titled “wellness expert,” supplement vendor (targeting brain health, immunity, and detoxification), and “life-long seeker of truth and knowledge.” On a podcast he recorded with Djokovic, they discussed how toxic foods and polluted water could be purified through “energetical transformation;” through the power of prayer and gratitude. The sentiment is strikingly like Theosis—the orthodox Christian principle of divination and spiritual transformation through union with God. Djokovic’s world appears to be one where religion, spirituality, pseudoscience, and wellness intersect.
But none of Djokovic’s views strike so blatantly at the heart of science than his beliefs on vaccination, particularly for COVID-19. His convictions had him deported from Australia in January last year for violating the countries immigration laws, which mandated COVID-19 vaccines. Some suggest his attitude is born as much of stubbornness as it is superstition. “I was never against vaccination,” he told the BBC in February of last year, “but I’ve always supported the freedom to choose what you put in your body.” His admission that he received several vaccines as a child suggests that, as an adult, he’s one of many people swept up in the widespread and highly unscientific COVID-19 vaccine disinformation campaign.
The Origin of Belief
It’s difficult to pinpoint where and when Djokovic’s eccentric beliefs emerged, although they were likely ingrained before adulthood. Born to a Serbian father and Croatian mother, his home life was defined by Orthodox Christian values. And, in general, religious orthodoxy doesn’t bode well for scientific literacy. A series of studies on a large database (9,205 records), showed that religiosity in the United States correlated negatively with science knowledge and literacy. In other words, the more religious the individual, the less likely they were to be scientifically literate. In a follow-up analysis of households with children, those with religious parents were more likely to nurture children who, some twenty years later, exhibited negative attitudes toward science.
Djokovic also grew up in a country with overtly anti-science policies. In 2004, when Djokovic was in his mid-teens, the Serbian education ministry tried, unsuccessfully, to ban evolutionary theory from school curricula, which would have been an appropriate action.
The Pseudoscience Grand Slam
Djokovic is the undisputed champion of tennis-related pseudoscience, but he’s far from the only contestant. His only parallel in terms of Grand Slam trophies is the formidable Serena Williams, also the recipient of twenty-three Grand Slam titles Williams appeared at Wimbledon last year with conspicuous tape on her face. After stoking a great deal of public intrigue and speculation, it was finally revealed that she’d used “kinesiology” tape to relieve recurrent sinusitis—a condition of sinus inflammation causing runny nose, cough, and tenderness. In short, the claims surrounding its use are false, and there’s no evidence it relieves sinusitis. This is one of many instances where a well-meaning coach or physiotherapist has applied “placebo tape,” because what’s the harm?
More recently, Polish tennis player Iga Swiatewk was pictured training with tape over her mouth. Her physiotherapist purportedly applied the tape to help the athlete control her heart rate. But since then, a litany of additional claims—including increased oxygen uptake and reduced inflammation—have circulated online. Nasal breathing has been studied extensively, and it may increase nitric oxide uptake that may improve arterial oxygenation in select patients with respiratory disease. But it has no benefit for people with healthy lung function. In fact, by limiting the volume of air that can be taken into the lungs during intense exercise, the practice most likely confers a net disadvantage for elite athletes.
There’s a bleakness to the picture I’ve painted, but I don’t believe the sport of tennis has a systemic problem. Instead, the press continues to overlook the conventional factors that make up elite performances—training, good diet, and sleep—because they aren’t considered extraordinary enough to sell magazines or trend online. This is yellow journalism at its most insidious, thriving on the sensational headlines of obscure practices. In fact, we’ve known for years that “fake news” online spreads further and deeper than the truth in all categories.
When a revered athlete lends their platform to pseudoscience—in their actions and behaviors, on social media, and on the court when the world is watching—they unwittingly blur the line between legitimate and illegitimate practices, providing dangerous misinformation. And because of the widespread perception that athletes are experts in health and fitness, they may pioneer rising trends in the use of nonsensical therapies among the wider population. Although the examples abound, I also mention the appearance of swimming champion Michael Phelps, who before one of his meets, could be seen sporting a series of circles on his skin as a result of “cupping,” a method that employs suction to pull on the skin, presumably to increase blood flow to the affected areas. Cupping causes bruising and can lead to skin infection. And there is no evidence that it is beneficial for anything, certainly not athletic performance, but how many ill-informed followers began to follow this silly procedure for who knows what? It’s a trend that has profound negative implications for population health.
Perhaps the main antidote to counter all this nonsense is a healthy skepticism, abetted further by following the advice of proven scientists.