( I wrote this piece for the print magazine FINAL in 2022. Reproducing it here for it stays forever relevant)
“No one gets to enjoy the entire Universe,
Some scrap of land or a handful of sky is denied,
It’s not as if your life is a loveless desert,
But not a drop falls where it’s eagerly desired.”
The above lines from Nida Fazli, a Hindi-Urdu poet, seem to capture the essence of Novak Djokovic’s ‘love problem’. Despite being one of the greatest tennis players of all time, Novak divides public opinion and evokes mixed reactions. Not just his tennis, but fitness and strict diet regime, worldview and life choices engender public debates. Being a great champion, he should ideally be receiving universal love, respect and adulation, but Djokovic seems to have bucked this trend throughout his career. His need to love all and feel loved from all quarters does not get responded to in equal measure, certainly not in the western world. Ideally winning should have provided all solutions, but ‘Amores Perros’ as they say in Spanish, that is, Love’s a Bitch!
Roland Garros have erected a steel statue in honour of their thirteen-time champion, Rafael Nadal. Novak Djokovic, the nine-time champion in Australia, ended up getting deported, despite carrying a valid visa and a medical exemption, for views he never expressed and a position he never took. Remember only one man, Judge Kelly, stood up for Novak when he publicly asked the Federal Government, “What more could this man have done?” But such was the distrust and accompanied frenzy that facts became casualties and he was declared persona-non-grata! What has Novak ever done to merit such shabby treatment?
When Nadal was cheered by the spectators at Melbourne even as his opponent in the final, Daniil Medvedev, was roundly booed, it was considered just another day in tennis. But the news that the Arthur Ashe Stadium audience had finally rooted for Novak in the US Open final made global headlines! It was an exception after years of hostility. Had the American audience finally come around? He might have won twenty Grand Slams, or been the world number one for a record number of weeks, but Novak Djokovic has never received copious love from the crowds, certainly not as much as he craves for. Or does he?
Perhaps the situation has worked out well for Novak’s career, as he plays better when pushed into a corner. Playing against crowd favourites amid booing and jeering seem to lift him. He feeds off hostile energy to drive himself further to prove some point or the other. On the night of the US Open final against Medvedev, Novak received overwhelming support from the time he entered the court in a bid to win his 21st Major, and complete the Calendar Grand Slam. It almost felt like ‘too much love’ bogged him down, and sank his victory armada. After the loss, he let his tears flow unabated, poured his heart out, profusely thanked the viewers for supporting him and declared himself to be ‘the happiest man alive’. Would he have preferred such burdensome love if it held him back? Is the bargain even worth it?
Three months after last year’s US Open sob-fest, Novak flew to Australia in January, was detained, got embroiled in a legal mess, was declared dangerous for public health and was finally deported from the Down Under. The defending champion was denied his title defence. Taking advantage of his absence, Rafael Nadal won the Australian Open, and received widespread love to go along with the Norman Brookes Trophy. Some players, read Roger and Rafael, have all the luck in the matters of heart. Others, like Medvedev and Djokovic, are left scrambling for leftovers. Some of this, but not all, can be attributed to early birds’ privilege. But there are various other factors at play- ethnicity, geography, style of play, demeanour, demographics and even cultural complexities.
There is no gainsaying that Roger Federer transfixes spectators with the exhibition of his racquet skills and rhythmic body movements. Rafael Nadal earns their respect by resorting to ‘shock and awe’. Roger is a consummate artist, Rafael a die-hard warrior. At one point in time, the Master had lulled the tennis world into sweet slumber by playing his symphonies and sonatas. Alone, he shone like the Sun, surrounded by planets and asteroids, and plundered almost every tennis treasure that was on offer. Beauty had gobbled up entertainment in that era, contests had been reduced to mere etiquette. His opponents competed for the sake of providing competition, but fell respectfully short in the end. The Roger Dance on quicker courts had left everyone bedazzled. The search for tennis perfection had earlier brought forth one John McEnroe, but a lot of whinging and cacophony had marred the beauty in his touch game. Roger started off as a petulant youngster, but made amends. A very reformed Roger Federer managed to satiate the taste buds of the aesthetes and tennis prigs. The star struck kinds got themselves a worthy role model to follow. The philistines and barely tennis literates also hopped onto the all-conquering bandwagon. The rag, tag and bobtail- all wagged for him. His gleeful worshippers accepted those monopolistic years as the necessary homage towards watching Mr. Tennis in action. Federer looted prize after prize as no one in the factory line looked capable enough of stretching him beyond a point. But outcomes had become predictable. Such monotony always cries out for change.
Prayers for a worthy challenger to appear on the horizon were answered in the arrival of an Iconoclast, a champion-slayer dressed in pirate pants and sleeveless shirts. Rafa of ripped arms, chasing ball after ball, giving his all in every single shot and even in his fist pumps, captured public fantasy. So pure was his own pursuit, such intense his resolve, that Rafael Nadal Parera from Mallorca never came across as a usurper performing a coup. Absolute monarchy of tennis seamlessly segued into a Duopoly. With Rafa establishing himself as the King of Clay Principality, the then reigning Emperor of Tennis had to break a swell lot of sweat to earn his tribute. Divinity was made to look utterly human, fallible on the red clay of Roland Garros. While he was virtually unbeatable on clay, Rafa denied Roger prize after prize even on other surfaces. He beat him at Wimbledon in his third attempt, and finally tamed Federer in Australia. The Grand Master was reduced to a bundle of nerves and tears. ‘Fe-dal’ established a balance between competing styles, and in due course, this came to be accepted as the natural order of things. Nadal’s unrelenting, unforgiving style of play found many takers. Many loved them as a ‘package’. This marked rivalry held more promise, and definitely had more edge to it than Becker- Edberg, or Sampras- Agassi. Rafa versus Roger reminded everyone of the short-lived Borg Vs. McEnroe, minus of course, John’s tantrums!
Viewers’ interest, and hence money’s worth, lay in tournament finals between the Master and the Challenger. Others were expected to compete well, good enough to make the champions run and sweat for their victories, maybe even take a set or two off them, but bow out after such a show of force. “Don’t spoil our Sunday, mate”, wished average tennis fans across the globe. “Don’t hurt my ad revenues by killing off the match-up!”, broadcasters hoped. “Don’t kill the buzz around my tournament”, organizers prayed. “Don’t spoil the perfect headline!”, journalists shrieked. Most players on the circuit were also perhaps content with being the also-rans.
The duopoly contained duality within itself. An ecosystem encompassing duality has no pores or interstices left for any other idea. A cocky youth from Belgrade aimed to disturb this cosy equilibrium and was therefore seen as a disruptor, a party-pooper. He reached the final of the US Open in 2007, played six Slam semi-finals in 2007-08 and won the Australian Open in 2008 – all the while joking around and doing impersonations of other players on courts and in locker rooms. Uncle Toni had warned Rafa about this ‘problem’ way back in 2007. Most tennis fans had by then pledged their loyalties to either the Nar (the Human, that is Rafa), or the Narayana (the God, that is Roger). Cult Roger and Cult Rafa were by then in the mode of branding everyone else as an imposter, a challenger, a mere side-show, a supporting artist, a speck in the universe, a flash in the pan and a fly in the ointment.
Andy Murray had also appeared on the horizon by then, and the English press had predictably gone crazy, alternating between cheering for him, and running him down. Novak, who in 2006, had preferred to retain his Serbian passport and passed over the opportunity to play for Britain instead, held no chance of being viewed favourably. Tennis media has never forgiven him for that snub, as well as for spoiling the two-man show. A lot of criticism, just or exaggerated, emanates from that position.
Nole arrived on the tour as a fun-loving, self-lampooning youngster who possessed obvious talent, but his fitness was always doubtful. The promise was evident, but being in the era of Federer and Nadal, despite his early Slam success, Nole was seen more as comic relief and a breaker of monotony along with Andy Murray, Davydenko and Del Potro- a top five material, a potential winner of a couple more Grand Slams, and a worthy competitor to the Big Two. Indeed Novak finished four consecutive years as Number Three, behind Roger and Rafa. This was the period when he regularly made news for his on-court impersonations, mid-match retirements, various allergies and injuries, strategic timeouts and his father’s outbursts.
The impersonations were quite popular, but rubbed Fe-dal the wrong way. His mid-match collapses were deemed odd, mysterious and inexcusable. The MTOs (Medical Time-Outs) were labelled as strategic, designed to hurt the rhythm of his opponents. Djokovic was accused of either being non-serious, or of not trying hard enough, and sometimes of even ‘tanking’ matches. Between 2005 and 2009, Novak retired midway from seven matches, four of them in Grand Slams. Federer labelled him a ‘joker’ over his fitness issues and alleged gamesmanship during their Davis Cup tie. Andy Roddick once listed sixteen ailments that Novak apparently suffered from and stopped just short of labelling him as a hypochondriac. The list of reasons or excuses for these retirements was indeed long and varied- breathing problems, cramps, gastroenteritis, blurred vision, heat exhaustion, dizziness- enough to guarantee Nole the fourth spot on Three Men in a Boat. The mid-match retirements led to insinuations that he had trouble losing gracefully. Novak must have been uncomfortable by the bad press and poor peer reviews he received during this period. For quite long, Novak was seen as a player who would choke in the final rounds, perhaps because not enough gas was left in his tank by then, or he just lacked the stomach to see through pitched-in battles. It was widely believed on the circuit that Novak’s ambition did not match his fitness and big match temperament. The controversies of early years around fitness and MTOs come back to haunt Novak ever so often. Professional sportspersons do face injuries and have to take MTOs, but sometimes Novak is unfairly targeted on the basis of Roger’s and Andy Roddick’s comments made more than a decade ago.
And then Novak turned it around so spectacularly at the turn of the first decade that his opponents and their fans were shocked out of their wits. From record mid-match retirements to daring comebacks from the precipice, Novak was born-again with the Serbian Davis Cup victory in late 2010. He improved his focus and fitness by leaps and bounds, and won so consistently against one and all that he could no longer be wished away. He was not even a proper footnote till 2011, which was the year in which Novak Djokovic demolished the old order with his victories at Melbourne, Wimbledon and New York. In 2011, Novak became the World Number One, won ten ATP titles, including five Masters and three Grand Slams. In a single year, Djokovic defeated Rafa in six finals, and Roger four times. Rafael Nadal described Novak’s form in that season as ‘probably the highest level of tennis I ever saw’. So annoyed was Federer after his second consecutive US Open semi-final loss to Novak after being two match-points up, that he ended up berating the victor’s audacity at key moments and even his upbringing! Novak’s was now the biggest scalp in tennis, he was the man to beat! Big Three was grudgingly accepted by the frowning Fe-dal fans, but has always been seen by them as some sort of a concession, an irritant and undesired overgrowth.
By the end of 2010, Roger had already won 16 Grand Slams, Rafa had won 9. Incredibly 23 out of the previous 26 Slams had been won by either of the two. But since the beginning of 2011, Djokovic has managed to win 19 Grand Slams, and has finished as the Year-End World Number One for a record seven times. Despite such stupendous success, a lot is made of how he does not receive as much love and support as Rafa and Roger do. Over the years, not just Novak’s origins and early years as a tennis professional, but also his style of play, manner of expression and what he stands for have been causing severe heartburn among many, yet have been providing immense joy to and inspiring supreme devotion among millions. That’s Brand Novak for you, and it does not involve half measures.
Novak realizes he is a Southern Slav, an East European, who would always be viewed as an intruder in the fussy Anglo-Saxon world of entitled privileges. While anti-black racism receives lots of attention in the west, subtle anti-Slav attitudes are ignored and go unflagged. Deriding and demonizing ‘East Europeans’ migrants for providing cheaper labour and therefore ‘snatching’ local jobs is quite in vogue. Such scaremongering portrays ‘East Europeans’ as no less than villains. There is historical distrust of the East because of the now-vanished Iron Curtain, and discomfort with the Eastern Orthodox Church. Indeed, many films are guilty of typecasting Slavs as spies, gangsters, traffickers, smugglers and crony capitalists who have purchased prime real estate in European cities, and go around shooting or poisoning political refugees and their enemies. Actors cast in such roles speak English with a typical Eastern accent. Daniil Medvedev was asked by the audience at the Melbourne Park to ‘go back to Russia’, and is frequently referred to by the Anglo-Saxon commentators as ‘the Russian’.
Novak being a Serb further complicates the situation. After all, Serbia was considered a rogue nation, governed by a genocidal regime, and held guilty of humanitarian excesses in the last decade of the 20th century. The complex Balkan Problem was reduced to Serbs being branded as sole aggressors and everyone else, including Croats and Bosnian Muslims, as victims. Reality was much more layered and blame was more evenly distributed, but Cable News and politicians do require a clear-cut enemy to blame. Serbians, led by the Communist, Slobodan Milosevic, were presented as the unqualified monsters of the Balkans. Visuals of NATO bombings over Belgrade in the late nineties, as well as unearthing of mass graves, are still vivid. Novak Djokovic has never shied away from talking about survival in bunkers during those fateful Belgrade bombings. His unequivocal criticism of every kind of war in its all forms instantly pits him as the ‘other’, if not the downright enemy.
Novak is of paternal Serbian and maternal Croatian descent. In fact, his father’s family comes from Kosovo. There is also some Montenegrin connection on the father’s side. Novak considers himself as a proud Serbian, and an ambassador-at-large of his country. But he is not a narrow-minded Serbian nationalist. Croatian legends like Nikola Pilic, Goran Ivanisevic and Ivan Ljubibic have been Novak’s mentors or coaches over the years. Novak openly backed the Croatian football team to win the World Cup in 2018, at the risk of incurring the wrath of Serbian nationalists. While Novak is a national hero in Serbia, he enjoys immense popularity in the whole of the Balkans, as also in many parts of the world. But the fact that he destroyed a Swiss’ hegemony, limited a Spaniard’s unchecked growth and cruelly denied a Scotsman in numerous finals, makes him an eyesore in Western Europe. This is not to suggest that a Slav cannot be an object of affection in the Western world, because he can be. But he must be a lovable underdog like Ivanisevic was in 2001 to evoke sympathy. Ultra-ambitious, super-confident East Europeans like Monica Seles or Djokovic, winning regularly as a matter-of-right, and slaying the top western players left, right and centre are too difficult to digest.
Serbians consider Novak Djokovic to be the Godsent child in reply to many Serbian prayers. The much maligned nation of barely 7 million people adores their favoured son. Serbian flags and vocal, vicious devotees follow him everywhere he plays. Neither Melbourne, nor Spain, nor Switzerland would have seen such passionate protests if Nadal or Federer had been detained instead of Novak. The whole country stops when he is locked in important matches. From the Archbishop and the President to the common people, everyone cheers for him. Such vehement ‘nationalist’ support often makes the westerners uneasy. Besides, Nole’s family (never the champ himself) and the fan base do not shy away from playing victims at the drop of hat, and that turns away many neutrals and genuine tennis lovers. Even Novak was seen sharing his table with Milan Jolovic, a paramilitary leader whose unit took part in the infamous Srebrenica Massacre. It was later clarified by his team that the player was not even aware about the identity of the ‘Legend’ , who once saved the life of the war criminal, Ratko Mladic. Djokovic was also seen singing alongside Milorad Dodik, a top Bosnian Serb office-bearer and a known denier of Bosnian holocaust. He was also photographed with a brandy named Draza, after a notorious World War 2 Chetnik leader and Nazi collaborator. While it is improper to attribute views to Novak which he has never professed, it is also unreasonable for his detractors to take kindly when such news and pictures get shared on social media.
Novak’s propensity for verbalizing his career goals and ambition – of trying to win the maximum number of Slams, and aiming to be the best tennis player – further hurts the sensibilities of those in the tennis gentry who do not fancy him. They detect a lack of humility in such declarations of intentions, whereas Djokovic uses such visualization tactics to push himself. This is where the differences between Novak’s and Rafa’s personalities get highlighted. Rafa repeats ever so often that his happiness is not dependent upon winning more tournaments, or being considered as the greatest player of all times. He has always shown more deference towards Roger, than Novak, who although unfailingly respectful despite many provocations, clearly expresses his desire to be more successful than both the champions.
Nadal has always been obsessed with being a perfect role model. Being an obedient pupil of Uncle Toni, Rafa wants to live up to the image of a ‘good boy’ by pretending he is in a school whenever he is in the public eye. He sees and judges the world through the eyes of kids watching and playing tennis. Roger Federer was once tempestuous, and still occasionally loses his charm, but now wishes to be seen as the repository of tennis elegance. He certainly does not feel obliged to broadcast his views on sundry topics, like Novak does, and thereby saves himself a lot of trouble. Djokovic, on the other hand, is a highly eloquent speaker and a man of strong beliefs. He believes in a holistic approach towards life in all its aspects- physical, spiritual, emotional and psychological, and articulates his views about various issues and his individual growth with as much candour as he can muster.
Over the years, Rafa has made some scathing comments upon Novak’s manner of smashing racquets, and exhibition of savage anger on court. In his zealous virtue signalling, Rafa has even said he expects Djokovic to try and be a ‘better role model’. Even his comments during the ‘deportation saga’ were very disparaging. Importantly, Novak has never dissed Rafa or Roger, or any other player, as was observed by Daniil Medvedev a few days back. Uncle Toni believes breaking racquets is disrespectful towards the underprivileged and those who have to buy equipment to play the sport. There is some merit in these patronizing thoughts, but except for Nadal, every other player vents it out sometime or the other. Tsitsipas considers Roger as the ‘GOAT of racquet destruction’. Sascha, Medvedev, Kyrgios and Benoit Paire all lose their cool from time to time. But standards are more stringently applied in Novak Djokovic’s case, perhaps because he is so much more successful and a threat to all of Rafa’s and Roger’s records.
When Medvedev says Novak has always been quite supportive of newbies, wishes every player well whenever they achieve anything and has never criticized any player on the tour, it counts as a huge endorsement. Djokovic defended Tsitsipas over the latter’s ‘toilet breaks’ while pointing towards the rules. He has refused to throw Sascha Zverev under the bus for his on-court misbehaviour in Acapulco, resulting in the latter’s default, arguing that unpleasant things do occur sometimes on court, and pointed to his own disqualification from the US Open in 2020. Djokovic stood by his friend, Viktor Troicki, when he had been embroiled in doping controversy, and even blasted the anti-doping procedures and officials for not acting like thorough professionals. Nole did not give up on ATP Council member, Justin Gimelstob, until the time it became untenable for the latter to continue serving in the Council. Such old-world loyalty towards friends gets labelled as ‘feudal’ in these woke times of ‘cancel culture’. Djokovic has rightly or wrongly faced ire for his continued support to those who tennis media felt should be roasted right away.
If your blood boils, there is no use bottling the emotions. Speaking purely from the point of mental health, it is better to express yourself either on court or outside it. Tennis has the inherent tendency to bring human frustration to the surface. Novak’s aim is not to please everyone, as he has clarified in his recent interviews, rather to grow holistically, remain fit, realize his full potential, speak up where he should and do good if he can. Not many players would have displayed the courage and commitment to highlight the problems of fellow detainees in Melbourne, including refugees and asylum seekers, not when their own career is in doldrums! The pressure of coming across as a ‘perfect role model’ can cause deep-rooted depression and result in stifling of the personality. Iceman Bjorn Borg just walked out of the court and the game after losing a US Open final. He was then twenty-five years old! Tennis has been saddled with Victorian etiquette for far too long. Novak’s shirt-ripoffs, racquet smashes and outbursts would be considered pretty much run-of-the-mill in most other sports like football and basketball.
Novak likes to keep it real- his aim is to explore every aspect of his being and realize his own potential. A sickly, weak teenager overcame his troubles and has grown into a super fit sports professional by seeking, and then heeding to good advice (and possibly failing in many such pursuits as well) and treading on many experimental paths. Novak Djokovic is a product of his belief system. His detractors might rubbish them as pseudoscience, quackery or whatever, but the fact remains that his methods have worked for him. He once hired Pepe Imaz, a spiritual guru who preaches ‘love and peace’ and advocates long hugs, but made him redundant once he realized that this path was not helping him further. He gave up gluten after consulting Dr. Igor Cetojevic, places high premium on stretching and meditation, believes in natural healing and is reluctant to get jabbed. Novak kept deferring his elbow surgery for months in 2017-18, but when the pain did not vanish and he was forced to go under the knife, he wept for three days. One might be tempted to snigger, but only Novak knows what is best for his mental and physical well-being.
It has been suggested that with his playing style, Novak could not snatch fans from the already established support base of Roger and Rafa. His forehand is not as flashy as Roger’s whips or Del Potro’s thundering drives. His double-handed backhand is potent, but is not a sight to behold like Gasquet’s or Wawrinka’s single-handed ones (but his down-the-line backhand winners are quite special). He does not exhibit feathery touch while volleying or playing drop shots, and his overheads are rather poor. On top of that he grunts unapologetically on many of his shots, and this irks the aesthetes. His serves are neither the fastest, nor impenetrable, nor do they boom like Reilly Opelka’s. But these non-threatening serves are highly accurate, hence effective, and have grown better over the years. This attritional style of play figures down and then breaks the opponent’s game. He might lose a set and appear to be behind, but gradually takes control and finishes quite strongly. Novak relies on his supreme balance to change direction, and to take the ball slightly early to force the opponent into rushing into their returns. With his relentless grit, reach and balance, Novak-on-court is a biomechanical wonder, the perfect specimen of a modern tennis player, although not in the fashion of earlier serve-and-volley greats, or pure baseline wonders. Comparisons are tricky, but Novak is not Manny Pacquiao, rather Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather of modern tennis.
His mid-match meltdowns are fierce, which he tries to make up with elaborate post-match heart hurls on all four sides of the court. Nick Kyrgios and many others find this exuberant celebration cringe-worthy, especially after Novak has been booed or gone unsupported throughout the match. But hey, what do they know, and does Novak care? It is never the crowds that crown sporting champions, rather the minds and bodies of some athletes that raise their heads and shoulders above their competition. Novak knows this well, and hence this quest for crowd support is rather mocking in a way in that it serves as a reminder to the world that he wins despite much backing from the audience, or even in opposition to them. After the Wimbledon final in 2019, he made known his displeasure over the blatantly partisan support in favour of Roger. “When they scream Roger, I hear Novak! ”. This is not the attitude of a man entreating for public love or support, rather an expert troll who knows how to give it back to those who do not like him.
As things stand today, Novak Djokovic, the most eloquent of speakers, has cleared air on most contentious issues and allegations surrounding him. He has unequivocally stated that he does not stand against vaccination, rather is pro-choice. It is just that he is not quite sure how his body would react to the vaccine, and hence he is not about to get jabbed anytime soon. His detractors have always accused him of being obsessed with numbers. By risking his participation at the biggest of tournaments, Novak has demonstrated that he is not just a hoarder of trophies, but is an obdurate man with steadfast principles. The court of public opinion and tennis media even accused him of lying and insinuated that he faked Covid documents, whereas it would have been so much easier to procure a fake vaccine certificate. If he craved hungrily for love, as many allege he does, he would just have caved in and gotten himself vaccinated. But Djokovic is made of sterner stuff. He is a very aware person with a thirst for knowledge, and wants to make sure that he knows exactly what he is putting inside his body.
He understands that his stand on various issues would not make him universally likeable, but is prepared to live with the consequences- likes and dislikes, labelling and name-calling, denial of opportunity to play at some places and withdrawal of sponsors’ support. Novak has offered personal support to Sergiy Stakhovsky, the ex-Ukrainian tennis player, who is currently fighting the invasion by Russian forces. He spoke about the plight of refugees and asylum-seekers detained for years in Australia, and expressed his ardent wish to help them. He had specifically referred to the case of Iranian refugee Mehdi Ali, who had been in detention for nine long years, and has now been freed and allowed to proceed to the USA. Novak refused to lend his image to a video game because -he thought they are harmful for kids. Despite being one of the highest-paid athletes, Djokovic has spent a lot of goodwill and energy in organizing and leading the PTPA which aims to guarantee the rights and earnings of players outside the top-100. A statesman lives inside the frame of Novak Djokovic who affects and is affected by the goings-on in this world. At stake might be the chance to win the maximum number of Slams, or become the greatest tennis player ever, or even the popular support, but Novak has not given up on any goal, in fact he has dropped broad hints that there is at least five more years of tennis left in him.
Those who love the man and his tennis can live with this much hope.
#novak #djokovic #novakdjokovic #Djoker #Serbian #serbia #numberone #GOAT #PTPA #ATP #Covid #novax #vaccine #rafaelnadal #Rogerfederer #AndyMurray #FINAL #TennisMagazine #printmagazine #deportation #AustralianOpen #frenchopen #USOpen #Wimbledon #daniilmedvedev #nidafazli #goranivanisevic #marianvazda #grandslam