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Jake MartinJuly 07, 2023
Serbia's Novak Djokovic poses with the Wimbledon trophy in London July 14, 2019, after defeating Switzerland's Roger Federer in five sets. (CNS photo/Andrew Couldridge, Reuters)Serbia's Novak Djokovic poses with the Wimbledon trophy in London July 14, 2019, after defeating Switzerland's Roger Federer in five sets. (CNS photo/Andrew Couldridge, Reuters)

This past June, with his victory at the French Open, Serbia’s Novak Djokovic set a record for winning the most major singles titles in history and staked his claim for being the greatest tennis player of all time. That Djokovic’s historic victory was met with the equivalent of a slow clap by the media and tennis fans is hardly surprising. Djokovic’s unpopularity in the West runs deep. His is a narrative filled with a variety of incidents, on and off court, that would make even the most hardened public relations specialist cringe.

It all began with such promise back at the U.S. Open in 2007, where the then-20-year-old Serb slashed through the field and made his first major final, losing valiantly to Switzerland’s Roger Federer, who at 26 had already established himself as a legend. That Djokovic’s name would forever be intertwined with Federer’s, along with Spain’s Rafael Nadal, was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind that September fortnight. Instead, the New York crowds were swept off their feet by the charismatic Belgrade native, who, when he wasn’t keeping the crowds in stitches with his post-match impersonations of the game’s biggest names, was tugging at the heartstrings of the Western media, as he talked about growing up in the midst of the war-torn Balkans of the 1990s.

Novak Djokovic is hard to love. Yet because he is an astonishing athlete, a loving father and a compassionate humanitarian, I cannot help but be a fan.

But the wheels fell off, and fast. His opponents grew weary of his “impressions” and the sunny disposition on display at Flushing Meadows gave way to a desire for perfection—from himself and everyone in his proximity—that frequently manifested in on-court fits of rage. Add to the list of misdeeds accusations of “playing possum” during matches, as well as quitting when behind and screaming at ball kids. The list of Djokovic’s public relations disasters is a long one, or 89 to be exact, according to a YouTuber who has assembled a comprehensive montage of his infractions.

But at the end of the day, the public disdain for Djokovic comes down to two key factors: “the Vaccine thing” and “the Fedal thing.”

Djokovic created quite the public stir when he refused to be vaccinated for the Covid-19 virus, a decision that turned into a global spectacle at the Australian Open in January 2022, culminating with the Serb being deported from the country by the government after a 10-day standoff. Djokovic’s refusal to be vaccinated has not only hurt his public image, but also hindered his quest to become the greatest player of all time. He was not allowed to compete in Australia and was not allowed to enter the United States for all of 2022, and thus missed last year’s U.S. Open, where he would have been the odds-on favorite to take the title.

Djokovic has repeatedly said that his refusal to be vaccinated has nothing to do with the “anti-vax” movement.

Djokovic has repeatedly said that his refusal to be vaccinated has nothing to do with the “anti-vax” movement. Rather, he argues that it has to do with his concern over what he, as an elite athlete, puts into his body. Indeed, Djokovic’s diet and fitness regimen are well-documented and are so extreme they would make even his pal Tom Brady hang his head.

But I would argue that the biggest reason that Nole (as he is called by his fans, however few they may be) has become the most unlikable champion in all of sport is that he quite simply obliterated tennis’ favorite couple: “Fedal,” as Federer and Nadal’s rivalry is called by fans in the gossipy tradition of “Brangelina” and “Bennifer.” Roger and Rafa together created what is considered by many to be tennis’s Golden Age, which essentially constitutes that time from when Federer first picked up the Wimbledon trophy in 2003 to… well, perhaps when Nadal retires at the end of 2024.

Fedal, and by extension tennis’s Golden Age, reached its apex somewhere around 2008, perhaps during the Wimbledon final of that year, where Nadal won an epic battle, 9-7 in the fifth set. Federer, the Swiss, with his classic technique and gentlemanly decorum, found his perfect foil in the muscle shirts, superstitious tics and heavy topspin of Nadal. Everything Federer does on the court looks easy; everything Nadal does looks exhausting. Seemingly friends off the court, they are a publicist’s dream. They are champions seemingly created by a committee of shoe executives, television analysts and racket companies. With Fedal, everything is pristine, refined, with no sharp edges; just don’t get too close or ask too many questions and destroy the idyllic aura that has been so carefully crafted.

Djokovic is a flawed man, which he has proven on multiple occasions, but what athlete isn’t?

Along came Djokovic, who was a breath of fresh air in 2007 and by 2012 an unwanted intruder. He was supposed to be a distraction, lest Fedal got too complacent, too boring. He was supposed to be a challenger and, yes, maybe even win sometimes, like at the Australian Open in 2008. But he was not supposed to win win. Suddenly, Fedal became “the Big Three” (and for a brief time with the ascendance of Britain’s Andy Murray, “the Big Four”). When Djokovic defeated Federer on his “home turf” in the 2019 Wimbledon final in what is arguably an even better match than the 2008 final between Federer and Nadal, it became clear that “Fedal” may be the publicists’ dream, but the Serb was the stone cold truth.

Djokovic was not only getting close to equaling Rafa and Roger, he was beginning to surpass them. Djokovic’s 2021 proved to be one of the greatest single years in the history of the sport, as he came within one match of winning the calendar-year Grand Slam, an achievement only attained by two other men—one of whom, Rod Laver, did it twice. It was an achievement that neither Federer nor Nadal ever came close to, and it legitimized Djokovic’s claims to be, if not the GOAT, certainly, on his way.

As Wimbledon begins this week, arguably tennis’ most visible global moment of the year, the sport finds itself in the unique predicament of having perhaps its finest player, on the verge of having his finest moment, and the world ready to respond with a collective shrug. Which is a shame, because for all his past miscues and P.R. disasters, Djokovic is unique for a modern professional athlete: He is not the product of a public relations firm or branding committee. He is the antithesis of “Fedal.”

He is by all accounts a devoted father, husband and devout Serbian Orthodox Christian. As a tennis player, he is the closest thing to technical perfection the game has ever seen; his footwork, groundstrokes, posture, anticipation are second to none. Even more important, from a mental perspective he knows exactly what he has to do on the court at all times. And no one seems to enjoy pressure more than he does.

As a tennis player, Djokovic is the closest thing to technical perfection the game has ever seen.

He is a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, who had the misfortune of playing at the same time as two other “once in a lifetime” phenomena, both of whom had the benefit of being raised in Western Europe, groomed for stardom and all its accompanying challenges from the start. Djokovic, by contrast, was born in Eastern Europe during a time of war.

Djokovic is a flawed man, which he has proven on multiple occasions, but what athlete isn’t? His crime seems to be his refusal to “play the game”—the off-court game, that is, that the Western media loves so much. His refusal to be anything other than who he is unfortunately detracts from his on-court accomplishments. He lives by his principles, which he has repeatedly acknowledged publicly are born out of his Christian faith. And while many don’t always agree with all his views, including your dear author, there is something admirable about his refusal to back down from his convictions.

He’s a throwback in some sense, to a time before the scripted responses and the hovering handlers that now permeate professional sports. You might disagree with his stance on vaccination, but in a sporting world so caught up in discourse surrounding records and who’s the GOAT, the fact that he was willing to sacrifice professional achievement and his athletic legacy for the sake of his beliefs is strangely admirable. His work in co-founding the Professional Tennis Players Association along with a Canadian pro, Vasek Pospisil, in order to give players on the professional tour more voice in the decision making process, and in turn make prize money more equitable for lower ranked players, also speaks to a worldview that goes beyond the self-centeredness of the typical pro athlete. There is an forthright honesty to how he lives his life—which for the better part of two decades has been very much in the public eye. Because of that authenticity, because he is not hidden behind layers of a publicist’s shadows and fog, there is something worth rooting for there. He places himself entirely out before the public with no place to hide.

I’m repeatedly reminded—which is surprisingly often for a 40-something Catholic priest—that most people are not Djokovic fans. I get it. Having grown up in the 1980s as a fan of John McEnroe, I saw the mixed emotions his temperamental outbursts elicited in the public. And yet it seems that with Djokovic, there are few with “mixed” emotions. There is simply dislike, which I think gestures to the polarized state of the world we live in. We no longer feel ambivalent about people. We lionize or demonize, and by extension dehumanize.

Perhaps Novak Djokovic is hard to love; he certainly does not make it easy. Yet because he is an astonishing athlete, a loving father and a compassionate humanitarian, I cannot help but be a fan. He is fully human, and for better or for worse and I cannot help but admire that.

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