Novak Djokovic often has to tighten his ear to cheer on a crowd for cheering him on.
He won a record 20 men’s Grand Slam titles and is a world number one with breathtaking athleticism – but he’s also one of the most polarizing figures in his sport.
The 34-year-old Serb is currently sitting in a government detention hotel in Australia, waiting for his latest controversy to unfold after revocation of his visa in Melbourne when he arrived to defend his Australian Open title.
A court will decide on Monday whether to send him off – but whether he wins or loses his appeal, this week’s events have made him an even more controversial player.
Just how can a boy who took shelter during the NATO bombing in Belgrade in 1999 become a player who fought to warm the hearts of so many people?
“You can’t make people like you”
When Djokovic faced Roger Federer in the Wimbledon 2019 final, an epic encounter was marred by boos from the Serbian.
His failures were applauded and he was mocked in a partisan atmosphere more likely to be found in football stadiums than on center court.
Djokovic saved match points and won a classic final, with pundits urging fans to show a great player more respect.
It’s hard to know exactly why they didn’t – yes, the hugely popular Federer has a fan base like no other, but Djokovic is also one of the greats in the sport.
“You can’t make people like you and it kind of does,” her former coach Boris Becker told BBC Radio 5 Live Breakfast.
“He’s a good young athlete with the right attitude and the right character, he just has a different outlook on life. He has a different outlook on how he eats, how he drinks, how he sleeps. there you can’t criticize him. Maybe that’s why he’s so successful, but he’s not for everyone – I get it. “
Does his way of celebrating get people flying? He gestures wildly to the four corners of the yard in gratitude – does it squeak when you boo?
Or is this past behavior in the field? He has been accused on several occasions by players of exaggerating injuries, most notably at last year’s Australian Open when Taylor Fritz said the Serbian would have withdrawn from their game if his problem with abdomen was “really, really serious”.
In 2008, Andy Roddick mocked Djokovic by suggesting that among the many ailments that bother the Serbian at the US Open, there could be bird flu, anthrax and SARS.
Or is it his outbursts of anger on the court? The most infamous of them ended in a flaw at the 2020 US Open when he accidentally hit a ball on a linesman.
His rants against referees and ball collectors over the years have also contrasted with the calmer behaviors of his closest rivals Federer and Nadal, and the word ‘arrogant’ is never far from the lips of his detractors.
It can be a mix of all of these, but it’s also worth considering what happened off the pitch as well.
“Good intentions” or “selfish”?
Djokovic drew a lot of criticism at the start of the pandemic as he was among several players who tested positive for Covid-19 during his Adria Tour event, where players did not have to socially distance themselves and were seen in the process to kiss at the net.
Although lockdown rules in Croatia have relaxed at this point, there was still no vaccine. Great Britain’s Dan Evans said it was “a bad example to set” and Australia’s Nick Kyrgios described it as a “rash decision” to play.
Djokovic then apologized, saying it was “too early” to organize the event but that the decision was prompted by “a pure heart” and “good intentions”.
He again caused frustration a year ago when he asked Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley to relax the quarantine rules, including suggestions such as reducing periods of isolation and transfer of quarantined players to private homes with tennis courts.
Again, Djokovic stressed “good intentions” and said his letter was “misinterpreted as selfish, difficult and ungrateful”.
A spiritual and passionate Serb who wants to be loved
Good intentions are the tenet of his Novak Djokovic foundation, which builds kindergartens and supports teacher training in Serbia to give “children from disadvantaged areas the chance to learn and play in a safe, creative and stimulating environment” , and draws inspiration from his war-torn childhood.
His country is at the heart of his motivation, having made playing for his national team alongside the Grand Slam as his most important sporting goals, and he also enjoys handing out racquets to young fans in the crowd.
Djokovic’s fans – and one only needs to be a Davis Cup draw with Serbia to know that there are many of them and they are very loud – are celebrating the fact that he has been a huge success at one. time when two other greats also played – Federer and Nadal.
A highly spiritual person who practices yoga and meditation and follows a plant-based diet, Djokovic has already set a revival with a five-day mountain hike with his wife that resulted in back-to-back Grand Slam titles. .
Nicknamed “The Joker” early in his career as he made humorous impersonations of his fellow players, he also desperately seeks to be loved.
Djokovic has never had the level of support enjoyed by the great Swiss Federer and the Spaniard Nadal, especially in the Grand Slam, and particularly at the US Open where he was sometimes hostile.
Although he often brushed off boos, he couldn’t hide the tears during last year’s US Open final when he said that even though he lost the game he was “happiest man in the world” because of the love he felt from the crowd.
Serbian journalist Sasa Ozmo told BBC Radio 5 Live Breakfast that there had been “unfair treatment” of Djokovic over the years and that he “often made mistakes which fueled criticism” .
“But sometimes the things he’s done that are very positive just aren’t mentioned often enough,” he said.
The love he may have earned in New York evaporated this week in Australia, as many locals were furious that Djokovic, who said he is opposed to vaccination against Covid-19, had obtained a medical exemption by two independent medical panels organized by Tennis Australia and the State of Victoria.
Australians had to endure some of the toughest restrictions in the world – many still unable to travel interstate or overseas – and viewed the situation as special treatment.
Djokovic was detained at Melbourne Airport for several hours before border officials announced he had breached entry rules for the exemption, and his participation in the Australian Open is in the hands of a court.
The “will he, won’t he be in Australia” debate had dominated the preseason and while many questioned his opposition to the vaccination, the way he announced he was in road was considered damaging.
Post on social media to say he had obtained a medical exemption without giving the reasons left fans, locals, politicians and other gamers in search of answers.
If he wins the expulsion appeal on Monday and can bid for a record-breaking 10th Australian Open and a record-breaking 21st men’s Grand Slam title, he will most likely be booed by the home fans who have dubbed him ” Novax “, and acclaimed by those who salute him. signs of support outside the hotel where he is being held.
And if he loses the call, there’s always a chance he’ll have his ear plugged again at his next event.