Roger Federer transfixes audiences with the exhibition of his racket skills with the ball . Rafael Nadal earns their respect by resorting to ‘shock and awe’ tactics. Roger is an artist, Rafa a warrior. At one time ,the master had lulled the tennis world into sweet slumber by playing his sonatas and symphonies . Alone ,he shone like the Sun, and plundered almost every treasure that was on offer. Beauty had then swallowed up entertainment, contests had been reduced to mere etiquette. That loot during those monopolistic years was accepted as homages by worshippers- a necessary sacrifice towards watching Mr Tennis in action . Outcomes had become predictable .Such monotony cries out for change.
The prayers for a worthy challenger to appear were answered in the arrival of an iconoclast . But so pure was his own persuit , such single-minded his resolve, that he never came across as a usurper. Absolute monarchy of tennis seamlessly segued into a Duopoly. After that, God had to break sweat to earn his tribute . Divinity was made to look utterly human ,fallible. The challenger denied him prize after prize, and reduced the master to a bundle of nerves . ‘ Fedal’ established a balance between competing styles, and in due time.came to be accepted as the natural order of things.
The duopoly contained duality within itself . An ecosystem encompassing duality has no pores or interstices left for any other idea . Djokovic threatened and then disturbed this cosy equilibrium. Most Tennis fanatics by then had pledged loyalties to either Nar (human, that is Rafa),or Narayana (God,that is Roger). The Big Three has since been grudgingly accepted but is always seen as a crowd.
He arrived on the horizon as a fun-loving, self-mocking youngster who did possess obvious talent, but grappled with his fitness . The promise was obvious, but it being the the era of Federer and Nadal, despite his early Australian Open success, he was seen as comic relief, a breaker of monotony along with Andy Murray ,Davydenko and Del Potro,a top five material and potential winner of not more than a couple more Grand Slams . His impersonations of fellow players rubbed Fedal the wrong way. His mid-match collapses were deemed mysterious and inexcusable. He was not even a proper footnote till 2011, which was the year when everything changed with his victory at Melbourne, SW 19 and New York.
When Novak won his first Grand Slam, Fedal’s tally stood at 13 and 5 respectively. By the end of 2010, Roger had 16, and Rafa 9. Novak has clearly been an intruder in the party . Since 2011, Djokovic has managed to win 15 Grand Slams and has been World Number One for 260 weeks. During this time ,Roger has won two Australian Opens and two Wimbdledons , and Rafa 7 French Opens plus two US Opens. The ongoing decade has belonged to Novak , who has won 15 out of last 35 Slams. Yet a lot is made of how the audience doesn’t like him, or never support him, as much as he would like ,or as they do back Fedal.
One can very well appreciate why this party-popper is not loved . Some purists prefer single-handed backhands of Roger and Stan ,whereas the highly effective double-handed backhand of Novak doesn’t get lauded . His serves are neither the fastest, nor impenetrable, nor are they copybook perfect . They are just ‘effective’ and more accurate than most players’ . His volleys and drop shots do not display Roger’s feather touch , nor are his strong backhands as ferocious as Del Potro’s flats or Roger’s whips. On top of this , he grunts unapologetically , and has sometimes even been accused of faking injuries or opting for convenient timeouts .
Novak is a supreme athlete whose playing style is a complete package. He has managed to outshine Fedal in the ongoing decade and has a better head-to-head record against both the champions. He is quite nimble on his feet, and it is nightmarish to send any ball past him. His accuracy is frustrating for his opponents and his determination unrelenting. On the court, he might not come across as a warrior throwing all he can into the ‘ last battle’ , or as an artist creating some masterpiece, but he digs in quite deep, and is considered somewhat of an ‘escape artist’ who snatches wins from jaws of defeat . He out-thinks and outlasts his opponents , and outpaces them when it matters. This is the secret of the success of Novak Djokovic. It is not the crowd that crowns champions, rather their own minds and bodies who raise them heads and shoulders above the rest of the flock.
Yet it somehow riles Novak that he is not as loved as Fedal . Nick Kyrgios recently lampooned his desperation to be treated on the same footing as them. Nick quite rightly pointed towards his ‘cringe-worthy’ and avoidable post-victory celebrations in which the latter appears to hurl his heart or love towards his fans . Even during and after the Wimbledon final on Sunday, he made known his displeasure over partisan support in favour of Roger. “When they scream Roger,I hear Novak ! ”. Why does the great champion need to beg for support ? It is obvious that this seeming lack of popularity with the crowds has not come in the way of his achievements. So why not just show the suckers their place, as Kyrgios often does !
Novak must understands that he is an East European Slav (a Serbo-Croat) who would always be viewed as an outsider in the fussy Anglo-Saxon world of tennis. That he prevented the march of the great champions towards unscalable heights irks their diehard supporters. Fanatics would always suggest that their own icon played better or that Novak somehow got lucky. He knows this well and hence this quest for crowd support is rather mocking in a way in that it serves a reminder to the world that he wins despite much of their backing. Rather than hanker after pitiable love, or drummed up support, he should rather focus on surpassing Roger’s tally of 20 Grand Slams, and 310 weeks as World Number One. That would send a fitting message to tennis aficionados the world over ,who are also not obliged to cheer for Novak in turn.