DOESN’T THE WORLD respect a man who stands for his principles at considerable personal cost? Novak Djokovic has already missed the Australian Open and will probably not be allowed to play in the US Open because he refuses to be forced to vaccinate against Covid. You could argue with his science but it is as courageous a decision that any player has ever taken. Djokovic gets almost no good press for it. After his victory in Wimbledon on July 10, when he took the trophy, the first few minutes of his speech were entirely devoted to making Nick Kyrgios, the man he had defeated, feel better. This was about as fine an example of the term “magnanimous in victory” as you would ever see. Then he made jokes, showed his love for family and friends, all of which exhibited a personal side which should endear him to tennis lovers across the world. And yet, next time he plays, the crowd is going to be probably rooting for his opponent.
He is obviously aware of it. Last year, for instance, as per a Tennis World report, he told the press, “It is a fact that I play 90 per cent of my matches, if not even more than that, against the opponent, but against the stadium as well.” What could be the reason for it when everything in his personality seems to suggest the opposite should happen? If you had to surmise, it has to be because he doesn’t show frailty or weakness. Consider the Wimbledon finals. Kyrgios is on a relentless spree of emotional outbursts while at the other end, Djokovic plays, as always, like a machine immune to any emotional onslaught. It is an aspect of his game that makes him one of the greatest of all time but it doesn’t give anything to the crowd to identify with. They miss the human touch, whether of niceness or struggle, that a Roger Federer or a Rafael Nadal brings. With Djokovic, there is only cold efficiency as long as he is in court.
There is an instance in the past of a player who never got his due from the crowds and that was Ivan Lendl. He dominated the sport in the 1980s but, like Djokovic, fought lonely battles on court. He, in fact, drew strength from it. As a New York Times writer wrote in 1982: “Lendl later told me that he thinks the reason the crowds are usually against him is because of what he says is a crowd’s natural tendency to be for the underdog. Does it get him down? “No, it gets me up, because I want to show them [that] they’re not right if they’re cheering for the other guy, because I’m going to beat him anyhow…” That is probably true for Djokovic, too. It is a good feeling to punish a crowd that deliberately chooses to ignore extraordinary physical and mental toil, only for the glee of seeing him lose.