There is a long-running joke among tennis lovers that Novak Djokovic tells spectators what they want to hear. At the Mubadala World Tennis Championship, for instance, he would declare Abu Dhabi’s fans to be the best he’s played in front of. At the Australian Open, he would insist Melbourne’s fans are special. At the Qatar Open, he would claim he couldn't have won without support from Doha’s fans. And so on.
The joke is, of course, an exaggeration of the reality, but at its core lies an interesting insight into Djokovic’s nature: he so badly wants fans to love him that he will say things just to please them.
The world’s number one player isn’t the only one trying to be a crowd-pleaser, though; his peers also wax eloquent, as all 21st-century tennis professionals are required to. As ambassadors of the sport, they have an obligation to entertain and engage their constituents – the fans – with words and photo ops as much as they do with their racquets.
But there is such a thing as authenticity, and it is something Djokovic has sometimes struggled to exhibit during public interactions. The more he tries to win over fans – by lavishing praise at them; chewing a blade of grass on Centre Court at Wimbledon; gesturing as if throwing his heart to the four corners of an arena while celebrating a win; or mimicking the serving action of his peers – the harder he seems to make it for them to love him. Fans don’t mind soaring speeches and harmless antics; they just want them coming from the heart.
Not everything Djokovic says or does is contrived. His meeting with Spanish film star Antonio Banderas in the locker room during a competition, where he supposedly pretended to pull out a gun and shouted “Desperado” (the name of the 1995 neo-western that Banderas starred in) was endearing. He surely couldn’t have persuaded another Hollywood actor, the famously introverted Robert de Niro, to watch him at the 2007 US Open final, when he was still something of a rookie, if he weren’t personally charming.
The fact that Djokovic plays in the same era as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two other all-time greats of the game, has been both a blessing and a curse for him. He has often credited both players – already established when he was still a greenhorn in the mid-2000s – for inspiring him to raise his game to levels he wouldn’t have.
At the same time, there is little doubt that Federer and Nadal are much more popular than Djokovic. Take any of the important matches they have played over the past decade, and it is obvious who the majority of the fans assembled inside the arena have rooted for. The 2019 Wimbledon final is a case in point. A peaking Djokovic was the runaway favourite, yet it was Federer, a man many said was past his prime, who received much of the support from start to finish. The Swiss master is so loved he could turn up at Centre Court at the age of 80, and he might still draw loud cheers; the same applies for Nadal at the French Open.
For many, Djokovic was once the proverbial "third wheel" who disrupted what was supposed to be the era of the Federer-Nadal rivalry. The more he succeeded, the more it has frustrated Federer and Nadal fans; today, all three players are tied on a record-breaking 20 grand slam singles titles each.
That Djokovic has matched his contemporaries is a testament chiefly of his self-belief. But one suspects it’s served as a double-edged sword. The Serb has rarely ever appeared as the underdog on court, even as an emerging player. He would walk into an arena with the poise of someone for whom victory was destined and this may have created a distance between him and the spectators.
But sport needs drama, and fans are always drawn to players’ sense of vulnerability enough for them to want to support them when the chips are down. With Djokovic, one rarely gets that sense. Even when he appears tired or ill, or is injured midway through a match, fans are suspicious.
The bigger problem for Djokovic, though, is that his off-court image hasn’t helped win many hearts either.
It’s hard to not feel for someone who, as a young boy, lived through the 1999 Nato bombings of Belgrade and has since used his wealth and star power to give back to his native Serbia through good works in children’s education and health care. And yet, it's his image as a nationalist – who has not shied away from being photographed with shady characters linked to the Serbian side of the 1990s Yugoslavian conflicts – that jumps out.
And Djokovic’s plant-based diet has proved such a game-changer in his own career that it's shown the way forward for many future players. Yet, it seems to have come with fringe views – he believes, for instance, that food and water can be purified through prayer and positive emotions.
Today, it’s his conviction as an anti-vaxxer, in a time of pandemic, that has completely overshadowed his preparations for next week’s Australian Open.
On Monday, he won a court battle of a different kind when his lawyers convinced a Melbourne judge to overrule the Australian government’s decision last week to revoke his visa and place him in an immigration detention hotel for not meeting Covid-19 entry requirements. The lawyers argued that a recent infection qualified the Serbian player for the medical exemption from a requirement for foreigners entering the country to be double vaccinated.
The ruling has given Djokovic the chance to defend his Australian Open title, barring any more legal complications that could arise between now and then.
Assuming he will play, Djokovic might expect to be booed by fans on the back of a huge public backlash he received after landing in the country without a Covid-19 vaccination. That someone could even get an exemption just because he is an elite-level athlete has rankled many Australians, who over the past two years have faced some of the world’s most stringent pandemic-related restrictions.
Djokovic, once nicknamed the “Djoker” for his on-court antics, has earned a far nastier moniker of "Novax" for his anti-vaccine stance.
Victory in Melbourne will secure a record 21st grand slam singles title that will move him clear of his greatest rivals. But might history remember him as the greatest male tennis player of all time? Or will his legacy, for effectively becoming the poster-child of the global anti-vaccination movement, be tarnished for ever? The ball is in Djokovic's court.