Roger Federer transfixes viewers with the exhibition of his racket skills. Rafael Nadal earns their respect by resorting to ‘shock and awe’. 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 tennis treasure that was on offer. Beauty had gobbled up entertainment in those times, contests had been reduced to mere etiquette. His opponents competed for the sake of competition, but respectfully lost in the end. All that loot accrued during those monopolistic years was accepted as homages by Roger’s gleeful worshippers- a necessary sacrifice towards watching Mr. Tennis in action. Outcomes had become predictable. Monotony cried out for change.
Prayers for a worthy challenger to appear on the horizon were answered in the arrival of an Iconoclast. But so pure was his own pursuit , such single-minded his resolve, that Rafael Nadal Parera never came across as a usurper or a highwayman. Absolute monarchy of tennis seamlessly segued into a Duopoly. After that, Mr. Tennis had to break sweat (a lot of it) 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 and tears. ‘ Fe-dal’ established a balance between competing styles, and in due time, this 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 had by then pledged loyalties to either Nar (Human, that is Rafa),or Narayana (God, that is Roger). But the marauder from Serbia had other ideas. He improved his fitness and tennis by leaps and bounds, and won so consistently against one and all that he could no longer be wished away. The Big Three has since been grudgingly accepted by the frowning fans of Fe-dal, but is always seen by them as a crowd.
Nole arrived on the horizon as a fun-loving, self-mocking youngster who possessed obvious talent, but grappled with his fitness . The promise was obvious, but being in the era of Federer and Nadal, despite his early Australian Open success in 2008, 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 a couple more Grand Slams . His impersonations of fellow players rubbed Fe-dal the wrong way. His mid-match collapses were deemed mysterious, and inexcusable. Djokovic was accused of being non-serious, of not trying too hard, sometimes even of tanking. He was not even a proper footnote till 2011, which was the year in which Novak destroyed the old order with his victory at Melbourne, SW 19 and New York.
When Novak won his first Grand Slam, Roger’s and Rafa’s tallies stood at 13 and 5 respectively. By the end of 2010, Roger had 16, 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 Open and two Wimbledon , while Rafa has won 7 French Open plus two US Open. The ongoing decade has belonged to Novak , who has won 15 out of last 35 Slams. Yet a lot is made of how tennis audience don’t like him, or never support him, as much as he would like to be loved ,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 enough . 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 feathery touch , nor are his strong forehands as ferocious as Del Potro’s forehand drives or Roger’s whips. The overhead smash is rather poor. On top of that , he grunts unapologetically , and is sometimes even 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 these champions. He is quite nimble on his feet, and finds a way to reach most balls in any part of the court. His accuracy is frustrating for his opponents and his determination unrelenting. On 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 as somewhat of an ‘escape artist’ who snatches wins from jaws of defeat(16 comebacks from match-points, 3 of them against Roger) . 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 crowds that crown champions, rather their own minds and bodies raise them heads and shoulders above the rest of the flock.
Yet it somehow riles Novak that he is not as loved as Fedal are. Nick Kyrgios recently lampooned his desperation to be treated on the same footing as the duo. Nick quite rightly pointed towards his ‘cringe-worthy’ , 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 entreaty 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 ! (Follow the shining examples of McEnroe, Nasty and Jimbo)
Novak must understand that he is an East European Slav (a Serb) 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 unattainable heights hugely 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 backing. Rather than hanker after pitiable love, or drummed-up support, he should 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 by-the-way are also not obliged to cheer for Novak. Crowds or no crowds, let the Slams come, and weeks at the top pass.
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