To begin his pursuit of a record-breaking twenty-first major title, Novak Djokovic stepped on court last week at the US Open for his first-round match against a little-known Danish teenager, Holger Rune. Though he would win, the thirty-four-year-old world number one didn’t do it with his usual efficiency. Djokovic won in four sets, conceding the second to the young Rune, who played a carefree, aggressive game. During that second set, the night session crowd came alive when they saw the eighteen-year-old challenging Djokovic and showered the court with drawn-out chants of “Ruuuuuune!”
“I didn’t know what they were chanting, honestly,” said Djokovic after the match, “I thought they were booing.”
In any other professional sports context, the idea that the crowd might boo one of the greatest players of all time during a historic title run is unthinkable. To Djokovic, it was the first explanation that came to mind.
Long cast as the villain in men’s tennis, Djokovic does not seem to play the role willingly. Standing at the microphone after beating Rune and believing he had been booed, he was visibly upset.
The reasons for the public’s vilification of Djokovic are both numerous and a little hazy. But one theory goes like this:
Novak Djokovic burst onto the scene in 2007 and 2008 and became solidly the third-best player in the world after Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. During this time the public’s reception of him was mixed (he drew some criticism after he retired in the fourth set of an Australian Open match in 2009 due to exhaustion) but leaned toward the positive.
In 2011, Djokovic put it all together. Having won only one major title previously, he won three in that year alone. He responded to previous concerns over his fitness by changing his diet, improving his flexibility, and effectively becoming tennis’s ironman for years to come.
Around this time, Djokovic began to draw more ire. Not only was he the “quitter” from the Australian Open in 2009, but more importantly, he became the spoiler to the Federer-Nadal rivalry. Federer and Nadal had dominated the men’s game for years before the 2011 season, meeting frequently in slam finals and becoming the two most popular players in history. Their styles contrasted yet complemented each other, their matches were legendary, and their on-court demeanors, while fiery, were humble and gracious. This rivalry made tennis more popular than ever, with almost every new tennis fan picking one side or the other.
But when Djokovic began to dominate in 2011, the era of “Fedal” became the era of the “Big 3.” With the pie chart of tennis fandom almost completely eaten up by rabid Federer and Nadal fans, the only role for Djokovic to play was as a spoiler to someone’s favorite player.
The three players’ longevity has intensified this dynamic, as Federer and Nadal, even a decade later, are still having their tournaments ruined by Djokovic’s relentless counterpunching game.
This explanation can’t fully account for the Djokovic hate, though. Andy Murray, for instance, also frequently played spoiler to the “Fedal” rivalry and was certainly never as hated as Djokovic.
Some feel that Djokovic has brought the “villain” label on himself with his on-court attitude. He is more prone to outbursts than his rivals and has been known to throw racquets or shout at his player box. Recently, he launched a racquet into the empty stands at the Tokyo Olympics. Last year, he was disqualified from the US Open for smacking a ball out of frustration and inadvertently hitting a lineswoman in the throat.
Still others point to his off-court actions, like the ill-timed charity tour he organized last summer, which saw multiple top-ranked players, along with plenty of fans, test positive for the coronavirus.
It’s true that these are the kind of mistakes that the spotless Nadal and Federer don’t usually make. But it still seems to me that the severity of the public reaction to Djokovic’s on- and off-court antics has been amplified due to an enduring dislike of unclear origin.
In my conversations with other tennis fans, possible reasons given for the Djokovic hate have also included things like tacky outfits, cringeworthy post-match celebrations, and anti-Balkan bias.
Whatever the case against Novak Djokovic, I don’t think it is nearly so coherent as to merit such an enduring dislike—the kind of dislike that made it plausible that he would actually get booed in a first-round match.
Djokovic himself does not seem to understand the reasons for his unpopularity either, and at times during his career, he’s appeared genuinely hurt by it. His former coach, Boris Becker, says, “Everyone loves Roger and Rafa; Novak is respected. It’s something that bothers him, but that love is something you can’t buy. He takes it personally, because that’s his character. He’s very sensitive.”
If we are capable of looking past our preconceptions about him, I think most tennis fans will find that Novak Djokovic has navigated his awkward road to success with more grace than we usually give him. He is deeply spiritual and speaks with humility. He has made a few embarrassing mistakes, owned them, and apologized.
His greatest crime may be that he lacks the style or demeanor that made Federer and Nadal so popular.
To me, Djokovic’s career arc is one of the most compelling of any active player. It is the story of a young player with fitness and confidence issues becoming the veteran ironman who steals his opponents’ legs away with long, grueling rallies that he alone is fit enough to endure.
As the game has changed over the last fifteen years—featuring a more grueling schedule and slower courts to encourage longer rallies that serve the appetites of the TV-consuming public—Djokovic has adapted better than anyone. He has made fitness and mental fortitude, once his biggest weaknesses, into his greatest strengths, the cornerstones of his game. While much of the tennis world has been telling a story with Djokovic cast as the villain, he has quietly been writing his own, where he is the hero who dug deep into himself to find patience and perseverance.
Novak Djokovic will step on court this Sunday afternoon to contest the US Open final against the young Daniil Medvedev, whose game is modeled after his. As tennis fans, if we choose not to cheer for Djokovic to make history on Sunday, then we should at least consider this: maybe it says more about us than it does about him.
Klaas Walhout graduated from Calvin in 2016 with majors in philosophy and religion. He has lived on the East Coast since then. He currently lives in Philadelphia, PA, where he spends his days (and sometimes nights) working as a hospital chaplain.