In case you’ve been living under a rock, Novak Djokovic just won Wimbledon.
In doing so he drew level with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on 20 grand slam singles titles, and kept alive the dream of winning a golden grand slam – all four majors and Olympic gold – a feat only achieved by Steffi Graf.
In order to win the last three slams he has had to defeat Nadal on Court Philippe Chatrier – a feat as close to impossible as exists in sport – and defeat the entire next generation, all felled by the sword of the mighty Serb.
These achievements bolster his already sparkling resume. He is now the only man in the open era to hold two full sets of grand slam trophies, and to accompany this he has twice achieved the Golden Masters.
His credentials are already such that with one more French Open he’d have three sets of slams. With another Monte Carlo and another Cincinnati he’d have three Golden Masters.
He already has the most weeks as world number one since the inception of computerised rankings. He has winning head-to-head records over his celebrated contemporaries, Nadal and Federer.
He has the highest winning percentage in men’s tennis history. In many ways he’s the most accomplished player this sport has ever seen.
You’d probably be better off asking what he hasn’t won.
By now we’ve all watched Djokovic walk out onto the world’s most prestigious courts countless times over. It’s interesting to note the treatment he gets from the crowd. Compared to the giddy, rapturous ovations afforded to Nadal and Federer, the reception Djokovic receives is noticeably subdued.
In the heat of battle, crowds will cheer heartily for his opponents. Commentators will note that crowds ‘want to see as much tennis as possible’ or ‘love an underdog’… but every single time?
And when he inevitably wins, the applause is rarely something of pure elation. It’s most certainly respectful, and people seem to enjoy participating in his arm-raising celebration. But at times it can all feel a little… benign. A bit formal. Forced.
While he has his legions of passionate fans, the last prize that Djokovic has not won is the love of the masses. As he continues to win and smash records, consolidating his position as one of the greatest ever to do it, there is no doubt that he has their utmost respect.
But he does not have their love. At least not in the way it’s given to Federer and Nadal.
Why not, when his achievements are equal or better in nearly every way? Why not, when he literally tells the fans how much he’s missed them through the many challenges of the pandemic?
Let’s go back to his first grand slam title win at the Australian Open 2008.
Federer was still the undisputed king of tennis, with a legend-making haul of 12 grand slam titles. Nadal was very much the king of clay, with three Roland Garros titles and two Wimbledon finals under his belt. Djokovic was the upstart nipping at their heels. He’d won two masters tournaments in ’07 and had fallen in straight sets to Federer in the US Open final.
Coming into the Australian Open Nadal still hadn’t fully adapted his game to hardcourt, and it became clear very quickly that Federer wasn’t himself. In the third round – a stage at which people were well accustomed to watching him eviscerate world-class players in 80 ruthless minutes – Federer played a gruelling marathon with Janko Tipsarevic.
This match is etched into Australian tennis folklore by proxy: the fans packed into Rod Laver Arena that night were there to see the maestro quickly and clinically dispose of Tipsarevic before a scintillating match-up between home-town hero Lleyton Hewitt and crowd favourite Marcos Baghdatis.
But Tipsarevic took a sluggish Federer all the way down to 10-8 in the fifth, pushing the Hewitt-Baghdatis match back to an 11:47pm start and a now famous 4:40am finish.
It was later revealed that Federer was experiencing lagging effects of a bout with mononucleosis, but educated pundits had already sensed something was amiss, and when Federer and Nadal were both dispatched in the semi-finals a new champion was to be crowned.
Federer was beaten by Djokovic, and Nadal by a young Frenchman by the name of Jo Wilfried Tsonga.
By then Djokovic had established himself as the world’s best player not named Federer or Nadal, but Australia had fallen utterly in love with the charismatic young Frenchman, and Australians love an underdog as much as anyone.
Tsonga electrified the fervent Melbourne crowd by winning the first set with power, flair and inspired shot-making. Djokovic, ever business like, displayed his now trademark ability to adjust and wrested momentum back from Tsonga, winning the second. It was far from easy, and the moments in which he bickered with the umpire drew a light smattering of boos from some spectators. But he eventually triumphed, winning in four sets and beginning his campaign for greatness.
The crowd were happy enough – it was something of a novelty having these two strapping youths tussle for a grand slam. But in a way it set the tone for the rest of his career. He lifted his first grand slam trophy to the grudging (albeit genuine) applause of a crowd who kind of hoped the other guy would win.
Djokovic would go quiet again for the next couple of seasons, but the landscape of men’s tennis continued to shift. Nadal would finally conquer Wimbledon in 2008, beating Federer in perhaps the greatest final of all time. Federer would win Roland Garros a year later, completing his long-awaited career slam. Over the remainder of seasons ’08, ’09 and ’10 Nadal would win six grand slams, Federer four, the only interloper being Juan Martin Del Potro, who won the 2009 US Open.
You’d have been hard-pressed to find anyone with any strong feelings about Djokovic then. At the time it was easy to more or less dismiss him as one of the more interesting supporting characters in the Federer and Nadal story.
But in 2011 that all changed.
Simply put, Djokovic produced one of the greatest individual seasons we’ve ever seen. He began proceedings by winning the Australian Open again. Then he won Dubai, before tackling the sunshine double of Indian Wells and Miami.
As the streak extended, his confidence grew. Time after time he was challenged by Federer and Nadal and time after time he repelled them, no matter the surface. He tallied a beastly 41 wins before defeat at the hands of Federer in the Roland Garros semi-finals.
It was the winning streak that changed everything. In raw results it was impressive enough – a grand slam and four Masters – but the nature by which he achieved it brooked no argument. He was a supporting character no more. Djokovic had arrived, and he was a problem.
In 2011 he would ultimately win three grand slams, five Masters and seize the number one ranking with a mind-boggling win rate of 92.1 per cent.
Now everyone had strong feelings about the boy from Belgrade.
Herein lies the main reason why people have never embraced Djokovic with both arms. The preceding four or five seasons had given everyone enough time to grow fond of Federer and Nadal’s storied rivalry.
Federer was the virtuoso. With his smooth, elegant style and one-handed strokes, he resembled a fencer wielding a sabre. He possessed a truly sublime, artistic game that flourished on the grass courts of London.
Nadal was the gladiator. Federer’s left-handed nemesis was armed with an explosive top-spin forehand and a dogged competitive spirit that saw him gain unprecedented supremacy over the Parisian dirt.
The story of the virtuoso and the gladiator, the grass and the dirt, had captured the world’s imagination. By 2011, everyone had picked a favourite and their almost guaranteed final meetings provided a blockbuster finale to nearly every major tournament.
By comparison Djokovic’s game was utilitarian – more practical than inspired. His happiest hunting grounds were the synthetic hard courts of Melbourne and for all his genius, Djokovic was probably best described as a machine. And compared to a virtuoso and a gladiator, what is a machine?
Brutal and economical. Mechanical, clinical and charmless.
Make no bones about it, Djokovic crashed the party. Now it was the virtuoso, the gladiator and the machine, and for a lot of tennis fans, three was a crowd.
His willingness to get right in the beloved faces of Federer and Nadal simply did not sit well with the masses. From his breakthrough in 2011 he made it abundantly clear that while he respected his celebrated adversaries, he was not in awe of them, and his passion and self belief were quickly judged and deemed to be nary more than arrogance.
This is not to say that he’s a hated figure by any means. It’s just that for a lot of people, he’s not their favourite. For such fans Djokovic’s very presence in any draw makes it unlikely that their favourite player stands a chance at the title, and it compels them to cheer against him, even when he’s playing someone else. It’s mostly nothing personal.
Mostly. Because like all successful people, Djokovic has his share of haters that begrudge him for his success and live to scrutinise his every action on and off the court.
The accusations range from biased to completely unfounded, and among the most abundant of them are his alleged arrogance and lack of sportsmanship.
In a period covering 2012-2014 Djokovic went through an uncharacteristic drought, reaching six grand slam finals and losing five. It was a period in which Sir Andy Murray was at the peak of his powers and Nadal just plain had his number. On every one of these occasions he delivered a runner-up speech full of unmitigated praise for his opponent. This has been true for his entire career, no matter how much the losses stung.
Perhaps the greatest example of this came at Roland Garros in 2015. After three years of painful losses to Nadal, he was finally in pole position to win the elusive clay court slam having beaten Nadal and Murray in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively. The last one in his way was Swiss powerhouse Stanislas Wawrinka.
While victory was certainly not a given, people recognised that this was the best chance he’d ever fashioned to win the French Open. The pressure was on Djokovic.
But an in-form Wawrinka is one of the game’s most devastating forces. Wawrinka produced an absolutely imperious performance and crushed Djokovic in four, forcing him to wait one more year.
Djokovic fought back tears as the crowd on Philippe Chatrier showed him their appreciation, and when it came his turn to use the microphone, he made no mention of the bitter disappointment in his heart and offered no excuses for his loss. Translated roughly from French, he said:
“Hi everyone… I don’t speak very good French…. A big congratulations to you Stan, your team and your family… it is not easy for me to speak right now but some things are more important than victories, such as character. Full respect to you, Stan, you are a great champion with a big heart and you deserve this title… I would like to thank my team, my family and my wife… all my team for the support, the French public and the worldwide public. I will continue to prove that I deserve to win on my next stop, thank you very much.”
The speech was delivered mere minutes after arguably the toughest loss of his career. They were hardly the words of a bad sport.
Perhaps it’s his on-court antics that influence the way people perceive him.
Djokovic, like all the greats, is cursed with an insatiable will to win. It manifests itself in a variety of ways. It might be a clenched fist or a point to his temple. Sometimes it’s a bestial scream towards his box, other times it’s a mangled tennis racquet.
Not all these behaviours are desirable, but they are very human. In a perfect world, nobody would ever blow their stack when they’re having a bad day at the office. But tennis has always been a sport of personalities.
You have the likes of Pete Sampras, Ivan Lendl and Nadal who were never known to break a racquet. You also have the likes of Andre Agassi, Goran Ivanisevic and John McEnroe who were.
Even the great Federer has been known to show a Wilson Pro Staff exactly how he feels from time to time.
The fact that some of the game’s most beloved players have smashed the occasional racquet doesn’t seem to matter when dissecting Djokovic’s behaviour. Nor does his charity work, or any of his numerous acts of kindness that have been caught on camera. His detractors will insist that it’s all for show.
Not only is this a grossly cynical view to take, it’s also an abysmally flaccid argument.
In 2017, Djokovic organised ‘A Night with Novak’, a charity event for the Djokovic Foundation, staged in Melbourne with several of Australian sport’s brightest names. During a hit with Aussie tennis legend Dylan Alcott, Alcott told the audience: “There is nobody in men’s tennis who does more to support wheelchair tennis than Novak on the ATP tour. He always gives. Any time… he does demos with us, please give Novak a big round of applause for supporting what we do”.
As Daniil Medvedev accepted his runner-up trophy at this year’s Australian Open he took the opportunity to share a memory of Djokovic from his years as an emerging player.
“I first practised with Novak when I was I think like 500 in the world or 600 in the world, in Monaco. He was already number one, just won Wimbledon and I thought, ‘Okay he’s not gonna speak to me or something’… the guy was a god for me… I was shy so I didn’t speak… so he was asking me questions, talking to me like a friend, I was really surprised… and it has never changed, whether I was 600 in the world or four in the world, you’re a great sport a great person, so congrats.”
After a spirited fight in the Wimbledon semi-finals last week, Canada’s Denis Shapovalov left the court in tears, the roaring ovation seemingly doing little to lift his spirits. In his post-match press conference he revealed that Djokovic had approached him after the match with some veteran’s wisdom.
“He’s and incredible guy. I don’t think he’s praised enough. He came up to me in the locker room and said a couple of words… to me it means a lot, he really doesn’t have to. He just told me he knows how difficult it is for me right now, but he told me that everything will come… it’s big coming from someone like him. Like I said, he doesn’t have to do this and it just shows the type of person he is, and it’s just nice for someone like me to hear from him… so for sure I have tremendous respect for him.”
None of the above stories were brought into the open by Djokovic himself. The fact that his colleagues hold him in such high esteem supersedes the speculation of anonymous trolls, and the fact that they weren’t public knowledge debunks the argument that his kind gestures are merely a product of some contrived public persona.
There are, however, those who have more reasonable gripes with Djokovic. Some fans assert that Djokovic makes opportunistic use of the medical time out in when he’s in trouble in a match.
The bulk of this criticism seems to stem from his 2020 Australian Open final against Dominic Thiem. Pablo Carreño Busta also called him out for it after their French Open quarter-final last season.
This is a tricky discussion. The medical time out rule remains a contentious point in tennis, and as you can never prove whether or not your opponent is legitimately in pain there’s often no point in discussing it.
You’d be a fool to argue that nobody takes advantage of the medical time out, but is it really so hard to believe that the most prolific winner in the history of the sport might actually be losing a match due to pain or discomfort?
If you dig around you’ll find plenty of footage of Djokovic losing matches, mostly without an medical time out, and every notable name in the sport has had to call for the trainer at some point, even amid controversy.
In the 2014 Australian Open final, Nadal took an medical time out after falling behind a set and a break to Wawrinka. He did so without explanation, and Wawrinka became irate when chair umpire Carlos Ramos could not provide a reason in accordance with the rules.
After Wawrinka won the final, people did not scrutinise Nadal for seeking treatment while trailing the scoreboard. In fact, most media outlets heavily emphasised Nadal’s injury, and most fans denounced Wawrinka as lucky to win his first grand slam. Certainly the passage of time has proven he was anything but.
In their semi-final meeting in the 2017 Australian Open, both Federer and Wawrinka took medical time outs: Wawrinka after Federer won the first two sets, Federer after Wawrinka won the next two.
In the 2018 Australian Open women’s final, Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep both took medical time outs with no obvious injury. But given Wozniacki’s history with acute cramping and Halep’s unprecedented gruelling run to the final, nobody asked questions. It tracked with logic that they’d both struggle with pain in a three-set final.
Even Pablo Carreño Busta – yes, the same Pablo Carreño Busta who called out Djokovic after their Roland Garros quarter-final – took consecutive injury breaks in the quarters and semis of the US Open last year, each time after losing the fourth set.
Whether or not we believe any of these great players were truly injured isn’t the point. The point is that none of them have had these medical time outs constantly thrown in their faces for more than a year after they occurred.
Djokovic played a five-set thriller with Taylor Fritz at this year’s Australian Open. At one point while returning the talented young American’s serve, Djokovic slipped on the Melbourne emblem behind the baseline. He grimaced as he got up, and before too long, took an medical time out for treatment. He ultimately won in five sets, and later revealed to the press that he’d torn an abdominal muscle.
This medical time out became a narrative repeated ad nauseam for the remainder of the tournament: ‘the great Djokovic once again calls for the trainer when things get difficult’. When he won the final by way of a commanding victory over Daniil Medvedev, the same people snickered, concluding that his phantom injury had magically disappeared.
What these critics didn’t seem to know was that Djokovic was not trailing when he slipped in his match against Fritz. On the contrary, he was leading two sets to love, and scores stood at 1-1 in the third set. There wasn’t even a break of serve to intimate some level of momentum for his opponent.
It should come as no surprise that the haters were ill-informed. For what might actually be a legitimate gripe with the great Serb, this propensity to ignore the facts greatly undermines their argument.
Of course, nobody is beyond scrutiny. In fact, at times, we openly bring it upon ourselves, and Djokovic is not exempt. His now infamous Adria tournament was at best ill-considered, and at worst, downright idiotic and an act of sheer complacency when we didn’t yet know enough about this virus.
For many of his fans it was disappointing. For some fence-sitters it might well have swayed them against him. But it would be absurd to suggest that all the hate directed at Djokovic stems from this in the early stages of this pandemic.
The truth is, to a certain demographic out there, it doesn’t matter what Djokovic does. They will project their hate onto it no matter what.
Many others simply prefer Federer or Nadal (or both), and that’s fine.
But it’s time to do away with all the false narratives.
Djokovic’s achievements will never diminish the accomplishments of Federer and Nadal, and by his own admission, Djokovic wouldn’t be who he is without them.
The triumvirate of the virtuoso, the gladiator and the machine has reigned supreme over men’s tennis since 2003. It is a perfect clash of personalities, skills and styles.
It’s well beyond time for tennis fans to come to terms with Djokovic’s place alongside the other two, without exception.