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The Beloved Novak Djokovic

There has been an awful lot written over the past 6 months (since he won his 8th Slam title at the Australian Open, I think) about why Novak Djokovic isn’t “as beloved as Federer and Nadal.” Or even, “Why Novak Djokovic should be more beloved.”

For some reason, I keep reading these articles, as if they will ease the nagging frustration in the back of my head and in the bottom of my heart. And while many of these articles make good points, more often than not they still leave me feeling vaguely annoyed and frustrated.

I think it’s because these articles seem to miss a point that I keep hoping (subconsciously at least) they will make.

Novak Djokovic IS beloved.

Here is where certain people whom I won’t name immediately pipe up with “but he isn’t as beloved as Roger Federer!!!!/Rafael Nadal!!!!” To which I can only say, “So what?” I don’t know about you, but I don’t tend to go through life feeling horrifically depressed because I’m not as beloved as someone who is adored by millions, if not hundreds of millions, all over the world.

If all of us felt that way, we would be living in a very depressed world.

But Novak has many very devoted fans. I am proud to count myself as one of them. I follow many others on Twitter. His Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter posts get tons of replies, likes, RTs/RGs, shares, and so on. If you’ve ever tried to take a look at his Twitter mentions, you’ll see that they move at approximately the rate of Justin Bieber’s. Ask any fan who’s attempted to get a reply from Novak. It’s not easy because so many tweet him.

What’s more, Novak is very aware that he has tons of devoted fans. Why? Because they congregate at every tournament he plays. I like to RT photos and video clips of Novak mobbed by fans and signing autographs and taking photos for hours because I am trying to fight this “Novak is not loved” narrative that is so very persistent in the media. I don’t have to work very hard at it, either.

Many will be quick to point out that if Novak were beloved, he would get more crowd support during tournaments. I would like to be quick to point out that he gets his fair share of crowd support. Is it as large as Federer’s? No. Is it is as large as Nadal’s? I’d say it is, and in fact, if you watch a Nadal/Djokovic match played anywhere but in Spain, you’ll find a pretty evenly divided crowd.

There are even parts of the world where Novak has universal crowd support, believe it or not, like China and Italy. I admit that I have no idea why these two very different countries adore Novak, but I have even less idea why they wouldn’t. Novak is, after all, incredibly personable. I find that the only people who disagree with this statement are those who have a vested interest in maintaining that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are the most popular tennis players in the world, and no one can possibly touch them.

But Novak is good-humored; is humble despite his achievements, yet confident in his abilities and his desire to continue to be the best and win; is deeply invested in fair play (witness how many times he has conceded points to opponents when he feels calls have wrongly been made in his favor); is utterly willing to be goofy; loves pretty much everyone and is incapable of holding a grudge; wears his heart on his sleeve; invites everyone to be a part of his life experiences, both on and off the court; and is also a devoted philanthropist.

Certain segments of the tennis fan community will now say “but…” and bring up some misdemeanor from his past. To which I’ll gladly say: yes, you are absolutely right. Novak Djokovic is not perfect. GASP.

Guess what? Neither is Roger Federer. GASP. Or Rafael Nadal. GASP. All three of them have, at times, not been on their best behavior. And I’ll tell you something else: at times, I haven’t been on my best behavior either. And neither have you.

But if you look into tennis’ recent past, you’ll find behavior that is truly appalling — nothing like the minor misdemeanors that Novak, Roger, and Rafa have committed. Like, truly horrific things. Look at some of the antics of John McEnroe, or Jimmy Connors, or Ilie Nastase, or Ion Tiriac, or any number of lesser-known tennis players from the 1970s and 1980s. They threw tantrums. They cursed out linespeople and umpires. They intimidated officials and opponents.

I don’t usually enjoy playing the comparison game, but I do so now to raise the point that taken alone, the behavior of Novak Djokovic, overall, looks quite good. But compared to the behavior of some of the dark princes of tennis’ past, his looks downright saintly.

Meanwhile, I think one thing is helping Novak become increasingly more beloved: he inspires. I have long felt it difficult to be inspired by a player to whom everything seemed to come too easily. I’m referring to Roger Federer here, although in his twilight years, his struggle to remain relevant (and his frequent success at doing so) have been a lot more inspiring. (Some Federer fan should write about what it means to them to have Federer continue to contend for major titles at age 33. I’d love to read that.)

But nothing has come easily for Novak Djokovic. At times he might make tennis seem too easy because he’s so good, but if you look at his career on the whole, you realize just how remarkable it has been. He came to prominence during a time when Federer and Nadal were gobbling up major titles like they were Pac-Man pellets. Andy Roddick actually put this quite succintly during Novak’s Wimbledon quarterfinal against Marin Cilic: he could have been content to be the number 3 player in the world, recognize that the top 2 men in the game were just too good, make a lot of money and reach the quarterfinals and semifinals of major tournaments and maybe even the occasional final.

No one would have faulted him for this. But that wasn’t enough for Novak. He had a goal when he was a young boy to be number 1 in the world and win Wimbledon, and by golly, that’s what he was going to do. He revamped everything – his diet, his fitness regimen. He made the bad parts of his game better. He made the good parts of his game great. And he made the great parts of his game sublime.

And then he did the hardest part. He learned to control his emotions. Some people in the world have natural emotional control; they do not ever become either very positive or very negative. Then there are those of us who have wildly swinging emotions. I am one of those people! Novak is another. I see my own wildly swinging emotions and know it is very difficult to rein them in, and I see Novak’s wildly swinging emotions and am in absolute awe at how well he can rein them in and redirect them.

I think this is why Novak Djokovic is very well loved indeed, and it’s why even to this day he continues to make more fans.

I know I’m fighting a losing battle here, but could we maybe stop with the “why isn’t Novak Djokovic more beloved?” or “why doesn’t Novak Djokovic get the adulation of Federer or Nadal?” In the long run, it really doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that Novak Djokovic is beloved.

His fans know this. And Novak knows it, too.

Postscript: This post touched a nerve with a LOT of my fellow Novak Djokovic fans! You can find a collection of the responses I received from them here.

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16 thoughts on “The Beloved Novak Djokovic

  1. You’re article is spot on! Yes, No1e is well loved and he knows it! That is what is important – he knows that people spread all over the world love him!

    Thank you for this article.

  2. i love this piece; i have shared it far and wide. thank you for writing this on behalf of so many novak fans. i think you should append it below everyone of those “why isn’t novak more…” articles! 🙂

  3. Pingback: A Follow-up… | The Adventures of Nicole Eclectic

  4. I think Novak has gained a lot of acceptance lately. Two reasons why he has not had the kind of enthusiastic acceptance earlier on: his story did not transcend himself and thus it was much harder for fans to truly identify with him and somewhat separately the Serbian nationalistic overtones of some of his fan base did not contribute to growing wider acceptance. By transcendence I mean when one watched Rafa compete one could see positive psychology at work and his mental effort could be copied in one’s own life to great effect. When one watched Roger one could see mastering of a discipline in a way which was independent of Roger as a person. The way I see it at present he still has a negative force in Boris Becker making statements undermining the fan’s ability to fully identify with Novak.

  5. I think you’re missing the point of the contrast between the “belovedness” of Federer/Nadal and Djokovic. It’s about the money. It’s about being popular in places that economically support tennis as a whole, including a tennis journalism industry. Tennis writers need tennis to be popular in viable markets or their job opportunities decrease.

    Djokovic clearly IS beloved by his many fans. But he hasn’t penetrated very far into the mainstream, particularly in the Western markets that strongly support tennis financially (USA, UK, Australia, etc.) Someday soon Federer and Nadal are going to retire. And Djokovic’s relative lack of popularity matters. A lot.

    It means lower ratings. It means ESPN pays less for the rights. It means advertisers get their time cheaper. It means lower ticket prices to fill the seats. It means less corporate interest.

    Fewer fans. Fewer sponsors. Fewer dollars.

    Which means those with a vested interest are going to keep worrying (and writing) about it.

    As a fan of Djokovic, you should worry about it too.

  6. The irony here is Novak is loved by many but not like Federer or Nadal. Will he be adored as much as “those guys”? No. And here is why in my humble opinion. Novak does not come accross as genuine as Federer or Nadal. He also appears to be very sneaky emplying all manner of tactics when playing a match and he loses the winning position, phony illness etc. He is a magnificent athlete and albeit is now one of the greats. But would l like to throw back a beer or two with Novak. No. Federer or Nadal, all day, any day. Sorry if my opinion/candor is too raw.

    • I don’t really understand what you mean by “sneaky” tactics. If Novak feels he has an injury or is developing one, he will take an MTO. This is perfectly within the rules and any other player would do the same. They would be stupid not to. That’s what MTOs are there for. Most of the time, Novak is in a winning position when he takes an MTO. For example, his most recent MTO vs Gasquet at Wimbledon when he was up one set and leading in the second set and vs Muller at RG when he up one set and serving for the second set. He can get injured at any time (as can anyone) – if it happens to be when he’s down in a match, that doesn’t mean he’s being “sneaky” – in fact, it doesn’t mean anything at all. Many other players taking MTOs when they’re down in match (they’re usually down for a reason), so why single out Novak?

  7. What a great article about my favorite tennis player on the planet! And he has been my favorite for many years for all the reasons you named here. Excellent work and glad to see someone rightfully acknowledge Novak’s lovability and greatness!

  8. When you are from a backwater like Serbia, i think it is relatively easy to feel “special” and “loved” since people there all but worship him. I think he is not as well liked as the other three: Federer, Nadal, and Murray. I do not like him, but I am not a Roger Federer fan either. There is something off-putting about Djokovic, though I think he plays divinely. I cannot like him. There is something very robotic about him that is very off-putting for me. I do not know any of these guys personally, but if I had to have supper with either of them, I would not pick the Djoker. Sorry.

    • Strange that you would consider Novak to be “robotic” when he is, perhaps, one of the most emotional players on and off court. I agree that he plays a very meticulous and precise style of tennis but surely his emotions make him seem more human than Federer or Nadal? Federer, if anyone, shows the least emotion so if anyone were to appear robotic, you’d think it would be him.

  9. When you are from a backwater like Serbia, i think it is relatively easy to feel “special” and “loved” since people there all but worship him. I think he is not as well liked as the other three: Federer, Nadal, and Murray. I do not like him, but I am not a Roger Federer fan either. There is something off-putting about Djokovic, though I think he plays divinely. I cannot like him. There is something very robotic about him that is very off-putting for me. I do not know any of these guys personally, but if I had to pick one to have supper with only one of them, I would not pick the Djoker. Sorry.

  10. Nice article. You’re right that it doesn’t matter how many love Novak, just that he is loved by many. I’m a Fed fan, and I don’t love Novak, but I’ve always admired his sense of humor, his appreciation of his opponents, and his good sportsmanship. It’s not a zero-sum game, where to admire my guy means I have to debase yours. Your guy is great, too.

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