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15th Jul 2019

Everybody hates Novak

Kyle Picknell

Novak Djokovic, by any measure, is one of the best tennis players there has ever been. Why don’t we adore him?

Given that he is still just 32 years of age and is now only two Grand Slam titles behind Nadal and four behind Federer on the all-time list, it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that by the time he retires, presumably by opening up his abdomen with a screwdriver and pulling out random bits of wiring and circuitry until his CPU breaks, there will be a case to be made for Novak Djokovic being the greatest ever. Singular.

At this point, that completely subjective title has been made almost objective by the unanimity of belief that the crown belongs atop Roger Federer’s head, gently nestled between those pristine locks of hair like his Uniqlo headband. Federer is, of course, the completely obvious and, unfortunately, completely correct choice at this point. Over the years he has reached a level of aesthetic beauty unmatched by anyone across any sport bar maybe Lionel Messi, maybe LeBron James, let alone within tennis.

The author David Foster Wallace, in the midst of comparing seeing him play live at Wimbledon as akin to a religious experience, described his body as “flesh, and, somehow, light.” The Wikipedia page of his career achievements is so long and extensive it’s boring. He will, with regularity, hit shots that even with an omniscient television viewpoint will leave you baffled. He will, with regularity, hit shots so devastatingly beautiful both in their design and execution they will make you physically gasp.

For Novak Djokovic – the relentless, grass-chewing, countermeasure to this beauty – to dismantle Federer’s case as the GOAT would be unthinkable. It would reshape the sport. Since Rafael Nadal’s emergence as a clay court titan in the mid-00s, the dynamic has always been advertised as him and Federer. On Friday during their semifinal, the first time the two had met at Wimbledon since that famous slugfest of a final in 2008 – which was Nadal’s first Slam without clay beneath his feet, it was difficult to watch them exchange forehands like terse, passive-aggressive emails and not be caught up in the belief that these were the two antipodal points, the two diametrically opposed forces of greatness within the sport.

In reality, after Sunday, it is clear that is Djokovic who stands as one half of that grand dichotomy.

Federer should have done it. He really should have done it. He won at least six games in every single set, including completely eradicating Djokovic in the second 6-1. He won more games, more points, hit more aces, had a better serve percentage (on both serves) and hit almost twice as many winners. By every conceivable metric, Djokovic was outplayed. Taking into account the eye-test, Federer was even more dominant than that.

When the Swiss went up two championship points in the fifth and the Wimbledon crowd starting doing that thing the Wimbledon crowd do – hysterically screaming after every single exchange in the rally because they think the match has just been decided – it appeared to be, as they say, all over. It felt as though the entire world was cheering for Federer because the whole world was cheering for Federer.

And yet Djokovic survived. Even more than that, he crawled back out of the water with a crocodile clamped around one leg and a piranha attached to the other, shrugged them off and then looked at his oozing, bloody stumps for limbs and decided they were nothing but a couple of scratches, too. He won, somehow unremarkably, in remarkable circumstances.

In an interview after the match, Djokovic admitted that he had to pretend all the shouts of ‘Come on Roger!’ were in fact, for him. “If you have the majority of the crowd on your side, it helps, it gives you motivation, it gives you strength, it gives you energy. When you don’t, then you have to find it within”, he explained.

“I like to transmute it in a way. So when the crowd is chanting ‘Roger’ I hear ‘Novak’. It sounds silly but it is like that. I try to convince myself that it’s like that.”

Have you ever heard anything so unbearably tragic come out of the mouth of a world-class athlete in your entire life?

It’s just what Djokovic does. Absorb and react. Whereas Federer presses, forces, manipulates and maneuvres in search of his points, Djokovic simply gets in the way. One of them plays tennis like a chess grandmaster and the other like the world’s widest squash wall.

And that isn’t to diminish what Djokovic does. His style of play, perma-scrambling along the baseline on the very edges of his heels, along with cultivating this totally impenetrable state of mind, a secret flower garden locked inside a bank vault in his mind, seems impossible. And it’s maintained through every single match he plays. Start to finish. Whatever his level of fatigue, no matter how dire the circumstances, regardless of the opponent or the numbers actively cheering against him.

For comparison, it must be relatively easy for Federer given the eternal adulation he receives and the natural technical gifts bestowed upon him that, even in the realm of the hand-eye freaks, makes him seem like a kind of racket-wielding demigod.

Djokovic, the number one ranked men’s tennis player in the world one of the best the sport has ever seen, has to pretend (!) he has people cheering for him (!!!), such is the adversity he encounters.

One is suave and elegant and charming, from literally the most neutral country in the world (and a wealthy, upper-class one at that), and therefore readily adopted as their own by the dominant tennis audiences in Britain and the USA. One is a little bit awkward and robotic and from Serbia, an eastern-European country most Brits still associate with war and most Americans can’t place on a map. One has immaculately tousled hair that always falls back into place between points, seemingly by divine intervention. One has had the same three all over buzzcut their entire life.

One you would probably call an artist. One you would probably, as I have done, compare to some kind of machine. Tell me the contrast between these next two images isn’t laughably absurd.

Djokovic has had it all to do. He has always had it all to do. So in a way, it makes sense that the tennis player with all these opposing forces conspiring against his popularity, from the intrinsic bias of sports fans to his upbringing to his playing style to his own mannerisms, has become this insurmountable obstacle himself. How fitting for the best returner of serve in the history of the sport, the one unofficial title fans will grant him, to become this endless, opposing nuisance to the storybook narratives.

His game is, in and of itself, a response to something. A serve. A surprise drop shot. An attempted winner down the line. An archetype. A legacy. The better Federer played on Sunday, and he played exceptionally even by his own lofty standards (bar a few uncharacteristically wayward forehands early on), the better Djokovic seemed to play too. That’s why it’s hard to shake this notion that he is a kind of subversion of greatness more than an embodiment of it, a quest for the mythological hero to conquer, a faultless vertical wall set for Federer to climb and prove his own worth beyond doubt.

But then… it is Djokovic that keeps on winning. Not the fairytale prince.

Maybe, just maybe, it is us, the fans that don’t appreciate him and it is them, Federer and Nadal with their otherworldly longevity, that are the obstacles for him to overcome. The vertical wall for him to climb.

If that is the case, then this ceaseless, unerring, Bond villain tennis-cyborg has already scaled it and reached an undeniable level of greatness at its summit. We should appreciate that now, above all else, irrespective of what we think might happen between this moment in time and the end.