My generation of tennis fans was already incredibly lucky to grow up watching two of the best tennis players of all time, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, in their prime years.
It would be incredibly greedy to ask or expect more of the tennis gods. Yet a young man who grew up in war-ravaged Serbia had his breakout season in the late noughties and we were treated to a third once-in-a-generation talent.
The three share 56 grand slam titles. Yes, 56. But one of them has always struggled to claim a significant fan-base compared to the other two.
Novak Djokovic is the greatest player of this generation. The best of all time, probably. There is a sense of inevitability concerning Federer’s record 20 grand slam titles being toppled by Djokovic. I have no doubt in five years the record will be Djokovic’s and it’ll probably be his by some margin. Novak is currently only three behind, and frankly he faces very little competition for every slam that isn’t played on clay for the next few years at least.
The next generation is unfortunately lagging behind and his two biggest rivals are trending in the wrong direction.
It doesn’t give me much pleasure to heap praise on Novak. I’m a Federer fan through and through. Federer is already a legend of the sport not only for his on-court achievements but also for the way he carries himself as an ambassador, as a role model for growing the game. It’s often a fine line between confidence and arrogance – more on this later – but I don’t think I’ve seen another example of an athlete in any other sport remain so humble after so many incredible achievements.
This is part of the reason Federer and to a lesser extent Nadal are so popular among tennis fans. Unfortunately for him, Djokovic has never been able to boast a large fan-base.
Djokovic is now also worthy of legend status in the game, but the way he carries himself off the court has greatly hindered his status among players, fans and media worldwide. He is often cordial in media appearances and some in the media report he isn’t difficult to work with. But there is certainly a commonly held perception that he is aloof, arrogant and smarmy whenever he appears in public.
Unlike Federer, it would be pretty difficult to mount the argument Djokovic is humble about his achievements in the game.
Recent comments in interviews have put fans further offside. “Personally, I am opposed to vaccination and I wouldn’t want to be forced to take a vaccination in order to be able to travel [to overseas tournaments],” Djokovic said when asked about his thoughts on the administration of a potential vaccine for COVID-19 being mandatory for players to be allowed to participate in the French Open and US Open tournaments.
Djokovic would go on to dig himself further into a hole. His latest slip up was especially egregious.
After being openly critical of the US Open organisers’ plans to go ahead with their tournament, Djokovic decided to create a new tournament called the Adria Tour in his native Serbia.
Throughout the tournament Djokovic and other players flaunted social distancing measures and even partied hard after each day’s tennis action, with multiple videos of players at nightclubs surfacing on social media. There was no limit on fan attendance and there was certainly no social distancing going on in the stands.
The first victim of the nonsensical behaviour was Grigor Dimitrov. His positive COVID test was followed by Borna Coric and Viktor Troicki and then – you guessed it – Djokovic himself. Djokovic tweeted his positive status as well as his partner’s and, with it, the cancellation of the tournament.
I have no doubt Djokovic’s achievements are underappreciated by the greater tennis community. Some in the media have claimed this is an intentional bias stemming from racist undertones concerning his Serbian heritage, but I believe the wounds done to his reputation are mostly self-inflicted. Painting him as some kind of victim of a witch hunt would be inaccurate.
This is all not to say that his on-court achievements aren’t worthy of praise and respect. His exceptional grand slam record speaks for itself and many tennis experts, media commentators and ex-players consider him one of, if not the, best of all time.
It’ll be interesting to see what kind of legacy Novak leaves behind when he retires from tennis. I find it very difficult to believe he won’t be the most statistically successful of all time by the time he hangs up the racquet, but will he gain more fans in retirement?
Again, I have my doubts.