The Serbian Gladiator, The Elastic Man
Novak Djokovic, the number one men’s tennis player in the world, goes by many names. Professionally, he is Djokovic. Athletically, he is the Serbian Gladiator. To his native country, he is Nole. And to his enemies, he is the Djoker. Nicknames aside, it goes without question that Djokovic is the new dominant force in the pro circuit. In 2015 alone, he won the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and US Open as well as five masters tournaments, meaning he can get cozy in his #1 spot until next year’s grand slams beginning in January. Since Djokovic is ranked higher than fan favorites Nadal and Federer, it only makes sense for his fanbase to be bigger. However, quite the opposite. Much of the tennis community has a deep-rooted dislike of the top men’s seed since the start of his professional career.
The dramatic back-and-forth rivalry of Federer and Nadal was every tennis fan’s wet dream. Both players were very different and each had their own dedicated fanbase. Enter Djokovic. Young, energetic, upbeat, and passionate to boot. His style of play was more forced and powerful than that of the previous duo. While Federer’s strokes appear effortless, Djokovic is the complete opposite, seeming as if he unleashes all his strength into every swing. He is a top notch defensive player, forcing his opponents to second guess their own strokes as he hits harder and cleaner each time, eventually pushing them off-balance to when he rips a winner. Not to mention his wicked serve is one of the fastest in this era of tennis. But when a tennis fan thinks of Djokovic’s play on the court, the first word that comes to mind is usually flexible. He is known for stretching his body across the court to make impossible shots. Djokovic attributes his agility to his strict gluten-free diet, which he wrote an entire book about titled Serve to Win.
With this much skill on the court, it doesn’t make sense for Djokovic to have the negative repertoire he currently holds. In this article, I will be breaking down the reasons why Djokovic is vilified in the tennis community.
The First Impression is the Last Impression
Djokovic does not have a mysterious or stoic personality that his big 4 counterparts have. This characteristic goes back to the beginnings of tennis when it was considered an upper class gentleman’s sport for the wealthy to show off their precision and skills. Etiquette was critical to the success of early tennis players as they were performing to honor their families. Nadal and Federer still embody this kind of etiquette in tennis, which is why the tennis community as a whole supports them. With Djokovic, he’s known to display his personality during interviews and press conferences, so fans aren’t as taken with his lack of mystery. Tim Joyce, a contributor to RealClearSports, speaks about this issue regarding Federer fans in particular:
“There is something palpably tangible in many fans’ attitudes toward Djokovic, if ultimately elusive and difficult to articulate, that ventures into deeper societal themes that is entirely discomfiting. There is an aristocratic dismissing, a disquieting classist arrogance that many Federer admirers are imbued with. This is not to say that Federer himself possesses such characteristics, though the “RF” crest on his attire does give Federer an intentional, calculated appearance of royalty. Djokovic is clearly unworthy to many on the other side.”
With Federer being the icon of the professional tennis world for so long, it is impossible not to compare Djokovic to him. And since Federer’s cold attitude has become the standard, Djokovic is being judged in an unfair perspective given that he shows his emotions. While Djokovic is not known as the wealthy gentleman that Federer is constructed as, he does display humble qualities often to a larger degree than Federer. Djokovic has a history of giving his opponents the benefit of the doubt on line calls. During one match he granted Berdych a repeat first serve after a fan shouted during his motion the first time, a favor that not even umpires can give out. Djokovic is also very gracious when he is losing, and applauds his opponents’ winning shots more than any other tennis pro.
Djokovic is an outgoing and outspoken player on and off the court, there’s no denying that. But some fans take Novak’s actions more seriously than they should. Djokovic has a tendency to tease his opponents whom he is friends with. It’s also a running joke that he likes to do on-court impressions of how his friends act between points. Even Nadal is known to have a great sense of humor, but you’ll never see a headline of Nadal being disrespectful for cracking a joke. So what all this Djoker-hate comes down to is simply a dislike of Novak’s success taking away from the careers of Nadal and Federer.
Novak’s friends and family have been the center of controversy multiple times for saying negative things about his son’s opponents to the press as well as shouting in the midst of points. Novak’s father, Srdjan, is known for his nationalist spirit and overprotection of his son. He once confronted a Serbian broadcaster in the middle of a match for not showing enough support for Djokovic. Srdjan more commonly trash-talks Djokovic’s opponents, criticizing their fake attitudes, especially Federer. Federer has an open hatred of Novak’s parents, and even told them to “be quiet” during a match. Federer is the only player who is openly unsupportive of Djokovic’s success. The 2006 Davis Cup was when their spats turned public, with Federer calling Djokovic a joke to the press. “You know I don’t trust his injuries, no it’s not funny, I mean I’m serious, and I think that he’s a joke when he comes down to these injuries.”
The New Fed
I would speculate that Djokovic’s rise to fame came at the wrong time for many people. At the crux of the Federer/Nadal rivalry, Djokovic squeezes his way in to the spotlight like a dog in a catfight. I believe that Federer and Nadal fans are unwilling to accept the fact that Djokovic’s level of play is now a step above them while his aristocracy is eons beneath them. While he doesn’t win every grand slam, he has set several records like Federer while being six years younger. Some even speculate he will beat Federer’s unprecedented record of 17 grand slam titles. Djokovic currently holds 10 grand slams, his most recent being the 2015 US Open win against Fed.
A Mental Sport
The biggest downfall of Novak’s career has been his spotty history of outbreaks during his matches. At the start of his professional career, he would throw his racket on the ground (2010 US Open vs. Nadal), argue with the umpire (2013 Shanghai Masters vs. Tsonga), and scream in multiple languages after losing points. Celebrating his winning shots is another factor that many fans turn their noses up at. However, some fans actually like that Djokovic is one of the few players to show their emotions on the court, making him seem more human and relatable. When Djokovic began his career, he was perceived as arrogant because he didn’t have experience talking to the press about his losses. When Djokovic lost the 2006 French Open quarterfinal, he later stated in his interview that he “was in control of the match”, meanwhile he lost in straight sets.
This is where tennis fans stop searching for evidence to dislike Novak. Are you about to jump on the bandwagon as well? Let’s not forget that every tennis player, even the docile Federer have moments exactly like this. And they more usually than not occur on a game point or match point.
Tennis is a lonely and grueling mental sport, and if you don’t keep your emotions in check at every point, it could be over before you even step on the court (a lesson Murray has only recently overcome). Tennis fans have to realize that being an athlete is not a one-size-fits-all profession. While all professional athletes are role models and must act with the highest level of integrity, this does not mean that they should be discouraged from showing fans their true personality.