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.