Why Can’t People Warm To Novak Djokovic?

Novak Djokovic is one of the most successful tennis players of all time. There’s no doubting his ability on the tennis court; he is effortlessly excellent and, on his best days, can brush aside competition in a manner few others can match. His accolades are impressive; his English impeccable; his family life steady; his work for good causes reliable.

But no one likes him.

Cast your mind back to the days when crowds were allowed to watch sporting events and think of the Wimbledon final 2019 versus Roger Federer. Even in the first set, it was clear the crowd had no intention of calmly respecting both players. The bias was so extreme that the match might as well have been played in Basel than London and, by the deciding fifth set, Djokovic could be under no illusions that his opponent was the favourite of literally everyone in the stadium except (perhaps; it was a weird day, so who knows…) his own family and coaches.

It wasn’t the first time Djokovic has faced such open hostility; nor can his popularity – which cannot be described as waning, given it never really waxed – be seen as being overshadowed by Federer’s own starpower. In that Wimbledon final, Djokovic was just an afterthought; the person the beloved Federer needed to get through to clinch his 21st title. It’s a fair summation of Djokovic’s career: he’s always just that other guy.

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The ballad of Fedal

When it comes to 21st century men’s tennis, there is only one rivalry – or “rivalry”, as it might be better described these days – that any tennis fan wants to discuss: Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, or Fedal. The rivals-come-friends have lit up the sport with their matches and their open affection for one another, defining the sport with tennis best odds short for both even when they weren’t winning titles or were sitting out with injuries.

Then, there is Djokovic. A healthy respect likely exists between the three best tennis players of all time, but Djokovic shares no warmth with either of his rivals. He is an afterthought again; the better tennis player perhaps, but just not quite it. Solo he doesn’t match Nadal’s draw as a clay court specialist who has somehow accidentally mastered other surfaces or the suave assuredness of Federer; when trying to draw attention and admiration from their powers combined, he is absolutely lost.

A challenging personality

There is little doubt that living in the shadow of Fedal has harmed Djokovic’s reputation and relegated him, even in his immense talent, to little more than that-guy-who-is-good-but-isn’t-Rafa-or-Roger. It’s also easy to sympathise with Djokovic for this quirk of timing: tennis rivals used to hate one another or display cold indifference – they didn’t giggle relentlessly while filming a commercial, team up to play doubles, or spend seemingly every interview waiting for the chance to praise the other. Djokovic is co-existing with two guys who aren’t playing by the normal rules and for him, well, that kind of sucks.

However, the second likely reason Djokovic is so difficult to warm to despite his clear talent and ability is his… challenging personality. Before his supreme talent became evident, Djokovic carved out a personality as the “Djoker” of the tour, mimicking other players and always being game for a laugh. Maybe some of it was natural but for many tennis fans, there was a sense of the artificial. It was as if it this personality had been created in a marketing meeting: Rafa was the intense one, Roger was sophisticated, so Novak would be funny. It didn’t work. It wasn’t funny, especially given his impressions of his opponents often came off more as mean-spirited punching down.

Then there is the, er, questionable beliefs. Djokovic cares little for modern science, and has expressed interest in subjects close to – or outright exactly identical to – quackery. This element of his personality no doubt led to his dismissal of the potential seriousness of coronavirus; an event that saw his wife post outright falsehoods on Instagram. While we can’t judge Djokovic by his spouse, it seems unlikely he felt differently, given he organised the Adria Tour at a time when literally no one thought it was a good idea.

On-court antics

A final reason why Djokovic has, for many tennis fans, proven so difficult to warm to is the way he behaves on court. Djokovic has had many, many, many miraculous comebacks in his career; matches where he’s seemed lost and beaten, only to then find a new energy and win, sometimes after a visit from a trainer. It’s happened so often – including in the aforementioned Wimbledon final against Federer – that fans are sceptical of just how genuine these frequent medical issues are. Is it just good old-fashioned gamesmanship? Perhaps, but it’s still not pleasant, and is unlikely to win him any fans.

So why is Novak Djokovic so difficult to warm to?

Essentially, because fans are human.

It is impossible to watch Novak Djokovic play and not be impressed. His tennis abilities are undeniable. However, away from those moments of mastery with a racket, he has numerous problems that are impacting fans’ ability to love him – be it living in the shadow of tennis’ most dynamic of duos, to disagreeable personality traits. People will always react to these kinds of factors, even if they think themselves hardened tennis fans who only ever judge based on skill; none some people may be capable of this, but most aren’t, and Djokovic’s personality and behaviours off-court simply do matter to most.

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