It’s certainly not an enviable task to be in the shoes of Novak Djokovic. You may be one of the most consistent world No. 1 men’s tennis has seen, a proud owner of 17 Grand Slams and in the business for 17 years now — but the crowd still does not adore you.
You are always the villain in the collective imagination of the tennis fans whenever it’s a matchup against folk heroes Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who could do no wrong.
Especially against Federer, against whom you prevail after being down by four match-points in an epic Wimbledon final last year. And still get booed.
The idea of putting together the Tour in the cities of Zadar, Belgrade, Montenegro and Banja Luka — to showcase the land of the Balkans — could certainly have waited. As an elder statesman of the game and in his capacity as the President of ATP Players’ Council, Djokovic should have certainly known better about hosting the exhibition series
“I like to transmutate it in a way: When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger’ I hear ‘Novak’,’ you said after one of the most draining finals at the All England Club which could have gone either way — trying hard to mask the disappointment at having to play the fall guy even in the moment of triumph.
It was almost as if Djokovic’s fault that he didn’t let the Swiss master become the oldest champion at Wimbledon.
And if that was not enough, came the ill-advised Adria Tour of the Balkans which has caused a major loss of face for tennis.
‘’We did it with a pure heart and sincere intentions,’’ Djokovic apologised after both he and wife Jelena tested positive for COVID-19 along with three other players.
It simply didn’t wash — for at one stroke — the episode gave a huge jolt to the plans of tennis for a discreet comeback and eventually go ahead with the US Open and French Open.
The photos coming out of the Adria Tour, along with a leaked video of the Serbian shaking a leg along with other players in Zagreb, the abandon at the basketball court where they played an exhibition match ahead of the Belgrade event — were testimony to a shocking level of ignorance on part of Djokovic and much travelled professionals like Grigor Dimitrov, Borna Coric and Viktor Troicki.
The idea of putting together the Tour in the cities of Zadar, Belgrade, Montenegro and Banja Luka — to showcase the land of the Balkans — could certainly have waited. As an elder statesman of the game and in his capacity as the President of ATP Players’ Council, Djokovic should have certainly known better about hosting the exhibition series.
“You’ve got to be aware of who you are and leading by example,” said Patrick McEnroe, an ESPN analyst and former player who has recovered from the coronavirus, referring to Djokovic.
This completely avoidable fiasco was possibly waiting to happen — given the fact that Djokovic’s attitude towards the pandemic had been nothing short of cavalier from the start.
He had incited controversy by questioning the necessity of an eventual coronavirus vaccine and explaining that he would have a hard decision to make if getting one were required by the Tour, not to speak of the stray incident when he broke the lockdown to step out for outdoor practice in Spain.
When the US Open announced its plans to protect players from the virus by limiting the size of entourages and restricting players’ movement, Djokovic was an outspoken critic of the idea, calling the plan “extreme” and questioning whether he would play.
What is it in the DNA of ‘Djoko,’ a world class performer who had been a creature of habit and discipline during a career spanning over 15 years, that leads him to push the self-destruct button time and again?
It’s good to be your own man — one does not have to be the darling of the establishment all the time — but this had been a public relations disaster which may eventually see him losing the ATP post.
Perhaps the most approachable of stars among the ‘Big Four’ of men’s tennis, Djokovic had always been a delight at the media conferences during the Dubai Duty Free Championships.
It’s a different story when he steps on to the court where he can be as mean and desperate to win — though the shouts of exasperation have come down somewhat in the Djokovic 2.0 phase when he won nine of the 19 grand slams played since 2015.
A plausible theory could lie in his roots. His family was reasonably well-placed as his father Srdjan and mother Dijana owned a company Family Sports, which had three restaurants and a tennis academy while young Djoko was hailed as a tennis prodigy of sorts.
However, growing up in Belgrade during the Civil War in the Nineties had it’s own share of anxiety and struggle and this admittedly built a streetfighter psyche in the champion.
‘’My upbringing was in Serbia during several wars during the ‘90s, difficult time, embargo in our country where we had to wait in line for bread, milk, water, some basic things in life,’’ he said after winning his eighth Australian Open title this year.
‘’These kind of things make you stronger and hungrier for success I think in whatever you choose to do.
‘That probably has been my foundation, the very fact that I came from literally nothing and difficult life circumstances together with my family and with my people,’’ he continued.
It was a far cry from the upbringing which Federer, Nadal or Murray may have enjoyed. However, it’s a champion’s pride which separates the owners of the top three slam winners in the sport: Federer (20), Nadal (19) and Djokovic (17) and all three have surmounted huge odds of different nature to be still reckoned as such awesome forces.
The dip in Djokovic’s form a few years back, linked to a number of relationships, had brought his marriage on the verge of a breakdown and Patrick McEnroe went to the extent of calling him the ‘Tiger Woods of tennis.’
It took him all the resilience in the world to get back to where he is today — and Djokovic certainly has a longer road to travel than his peers.
It’s may be too late in the day for the tennis fans to start loving him … but they should just hold him in awe for what he has achieved. For all his failings — Novak Djokovic certainly deserves that!