Novak Djokovic is a champion. He shows up to every match and does his best to reach every ball, and more often than not responds with scathing groundshots which have slowly built him the resume of being the greatest defensive player in the history of the men’s game.
Novak Djokovic is a warrior. In the recently-concluded Australian Open, he played with a meniscus tear in his last four matches. It started off as a 2mm tear. A post-tournament MRI showed it had been exacerbated by a factor of 13. He doesn’t bow in the face of adversity — he never has.
Novak Djokovic is a mental monster. There runs a joke in tennis circles — on the ATP tour, the most popular players are Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and whoever is playing against Novak. He grew up against the backdrop of violence in Yugoslavia and still fought his way right to the top of the game. His defiance in the moments that matter is unparalleled.
Novak Djokovic is an entertainer. He is a funny man, nicknamed the ‘Djoker’, who in his younger days used to do impressions of contemporaries such as Nadal, Maria Sharapova and even his former coach Boris Becker.
Novak Djokovic should be everyone’s favourite player. So why isn’t he?
In literary circles, the idea of the ‘death of the author’ is a popular one, which asks for an artist to be removed from the art itself. Critics of this theory ask an important question, and one which is quite easily implemented in Djokovic’s example too: if his tennis is the art, can we ‘kill’ the artist? Is it honest to try and appreciate his tennis while turning a blind eye towards his character, especially since his tennis is such an important part of who he is? Especially when it is so problematic, especially when he is such a strong personality, and especially when impressionable young tennis fans are quite likely to look up to him as an inspiration?
It is difficult for a person to be anything close to perfect, and even more unfair for other people to expect them to be. That said, it often feels like Djokovic does his best to veer away from that definition — it is fair to say 2020 was a real challenge for his PR team. A short summary: denying the prevalence of the coronavirus in his native Serbia and then questioning its very existence; promotion of pseudoscientific methods to his 8 million followers on Instagram in collaboration with an alternative lifestyle ‘guru’; his silence following his father’s attack ad hominem upon Roger Federer; the disastrous establishment of the PTPA as an alternative to the ATP council at a time when unity was of the highest importance; and of course, the cataclysmic Adria Tour, held at the pandemic’s peak in the presence of capacity crowds which neatly seemed to wrap all of these up within one very convenient gift box. To add insult to injury was his gaffe at the US Open, where he infamously defaulted his quarterfinal match by smacking a ball in frustration, straight towards the throat of a line-judge. While that was certainly nothing more than an instance of misfortune, it very much felt like the straw to break this particular camel’s back.
At his career’s end, there is a strong chance Novak Djokovic will statistically be the greatest male tennis player to ever have lived. He is likely to have the most Grand Slam titles, most weeks as world number one, most ATP Masters titles, and the list is unlikely to end there. His critics can’t rely on him underperforming within the sport himself: he is simply too good. His serve is going from strength to strength, with age he has taught himself how to win points quicker, and his athleticism, speed and flexibility remain demi-godly. Unfortunately for him, being considered the G.O.A.T (that old, eternally provocative buzzword) of any sport does not objectively depend solely on numbers and facts, as counterintuitive as it sounds.
Tennis can be cruel: the players on court are individuals, and are therefore perceived as such, more than in any team sport. By virtue of the contest they have made their own, they demand to be considered human, whether they like it or not. It will be Novak Djokovic, the person, sparring against Rafael Nadal. Our favourite players aren’t solely dictated by how they play and how much they win. Certainly, that has an impact, but so does who they are and how we perceive them. For all his positives, which one cannot begin to downplay, this will be Novak Djokovic’s ultimate struggle for the rest of his career.
Sadly, odds are that it is too late for his perception to shift in the eyes of the tennis fraternity, and he will always be the ATP tour’s pantomime villain. It is an uphill battle. Djokovic is successful, but like any human would, he wants to be liked, and be considered a role model for budding tennis players across the world. However, this is a cautionary tale, and it’s true that these aren’t easy questions to contend with, but Djokovic’s promotion of his dangerous personal views mean that they can no longer be personal because of the wide-reaching influence they can have. In the public sphere, can Novak be anyone’s hero? Should he be?
Novak Djokovic is a dangerous man to idolize, and a dilemma within himself. Everyone should want to be him, but nobody should. The border is too smudged for there to be a clear line down the middle — the Venn diagram of Djokovic the tennis star and the person has to be considered one circle, as it sadly must be for those who come under the critical eye of the public. It is the legacy he must live with.
Kartikay Dutta is a prospective English major. He loves watching, talking and writing about sports, and also reading fantasy novels whenever he finds time in between assignments.
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