Carl Bialik’s work can be found at FiveThirtyEight, and Kelyn Soong’s work can be found at The Washington Post.
Thanks Kelyn and Carl for joining me for an in-depth discussion about Novak Djokovic and his unique relationship with tennis fans. Last weekend, I attended the US Open men’s final. I know Carl was there, and Kelyn watched it on TV.
Attending as a Federer fan, the crowd’s vociferous reactions were much more thrilling to me than bothersome, setting aside the obvious problems with people calling out between Djokovic’s first and second serves. I thought Djokovic handled the situation very well, and I didn’t think much of it leaving the match. So I was surprised when I got on the train leaving Flushing Meadows and saw that Kelyn was talking about being bothered by the crowd’s treatment of Djokovic on Twitter. I thought Kelyn’s different perspective was interesting, so I wanted to have this discussion to expand on that topic. What did you two think overall about how the crowd treated Djokovic?
I’ll start off with my own views. To me, the idea of any player deserving certain treatment from the fans is a bit puzzling. (Putting aside special incidents like what happened to Serena in Indian Wells. Racist or offensive comments aren’t included in this.) I don’t think fans are being unfair if they root against someone, even someone as good at tennis as Novak Djokovic. Individual sports are about personality, which is why people don’t automatically switch their fan allegiances from one person to someone else who might be winning more matches. It’s why I’m a fan of Bernard Tomic, even when he’s losing a Cincinnati qualifying match in under 30 minutes to Robby Ginepri. It’s why I’ve stuck with being a fan of Delpo even though he struggled to break through the Big Four or stay healthy. On-court success doesn’t translate directly into fan support.
Also, the person dominating the tour may not be well-liked by fans. Though Federer received a ton of love during his peak, I’m not sure that’s universal. On the women’s side, Victoria Azarenka certainly didn’t enjoy broad fan support when she commanded the ranking. For whatever reason, Djokovic is not as popular as Federer and Nadal, despite having tennis accomplishments that put him in their category on court. Do you guys think he’s getting unfair treatment from the fans?
While I agree with Amy that much of the partisan support was due to fans urging on Federer, it still seemed to me like part of it was people being against Djokovic, for one reason or another (I’ll get to that later.)
As several of the ESPN commentators observed, the level of support Federer received was more vocal than they had ever heard at the US Open (I recall Cahill saying that it was louder than when Agassi played) and as the match went on, more and more fans began cheering for Djokovic’s faults. It got to point where it seemed like Eva Asderaki (the real MVP) had to tell the fans to quiet down before every other point. I understand it’s the fans prerogative to cheer and root against whomever they choose, but it really did come across as disrespectful and rude to me that a few fans were shouting before Djokovic’s serves. (I touched on this briefly in an article I wrote for the Washington Post.)
Amy pointed out to me that tennis is the “only sport that demands fans respect their rivals,” and I can’t disagree that tennis does operate by a different set of rules/etiquette that sports fans might find odd. But I think with tennis, because it’s such an individual sport, the jeering or heckling could come from more personal reasons rather than just “supporting a home team” or in this case being a die-hard Federer fan.
I think what really pushed me over the edge was when I tweeted a quote from Djokovic during the trophy ceremony in which he shared his admiration for Federer and a Federer fan quoted the tweet and said something to the effect of, “Go away Djokovic. No likes you.” (Here’s the actual tweet.) I understand passionate fandom, and I truly believe Federer has conducted himself in a way to warrant the amount of fans he gets, wherever he goes. And l agree with my colleague Liz Clarke, whom I respect tremendously, that Federer was the “underdog” in this match, and New York crowds love underdogs. (Many people, including myself, would like to see him win an 18th Grand Slam.)
What gets me is that I feel a lot of tennis fans dislike Djokovic for reasons that can basically summed up to the fact that he’s not Federer. The complaints I hear about Djokovic is that “he’s not classy,” “he has bad attitude on the court,” “he’s arrogant,” all of which I find to be undeserved criticism. And it’s hard to me to believe that many in the crowd cheering for Djokovic’s faults didn’t harbor some of those feelings. I honestly don’t think the crowd would’ve been that one-sided if Federer was playing Wawrinka instead, or any other opponent for that matter.
And I think a 10-time Grand Slam champion like Djokovic deserved a little better than what he received Sunday night. Yes, Djokovic has been immature on the court in the past (honestly, who hasn’t?) and yes, sometimes his camp says the wrong things that make it difficult for those who don’t like him already to embrace him, but I feel Djokovic has matured a lot since his younger days and has been saying all the right things. When he was asked multiple times about the crowd, including a bait from Tom Rinaldi asking him “what he had to overcome” during the trophy ceremony, Djokovic refused to bad mouth the fans and instead offered that he hopes to one day get the same support Federer does.
I’m sure the majority of crowd was not being disrespectful, and was just being passionate about their favorite player, but I couldn’t help but think that with all the non-Djokovic fans I’ve met over the years, that a common disdain for him was a partial contributor to the vocally partisan support that Federer received.
I think there are a few useful distinctions we can make here, both among types of fan behavior at the final, and among reasons people had for not rooting for Djokovic.
Sounds like we all agree that calling out just as a player is serving, or between first and second serves, isn’t OK. My sense was that just a handful of people were doing that — and more people were echoing Eva and shushing the yellers. We could also have a separate conversation about whether tennis could ever allow for crowd noise at all times, as other sports do. The yellers wouldn’t matter if they weren’t yelling over silence. Maybe IPTL can experiment with this.
There were also fans cheering after Djokovic errors. This might seem boorish in Wimbledon, and prompt people to call it a Davis Cup atmosphere, but US Open fans are always a little boorish. I also think all’s fair when cheering for your favorite so long as you don’t disrupt play (so, distinct from the cheers between serves).
As an aside, there’s no evidence any of this costs Djokovic any matches. It might win him some. He often seems to feed off lack of crowd support, as he did before hitting The Shot when down match point to Federer on the same court in 2011.
Other than trying to disrupt Djokovic or cheering his errors, the Federer supporters mainly stood out for vastly outnumbering (or outyelling) the Djokovic fans. I agree completely with Amy that we can’t decide one player deserves more support than another because of success. Fans have all sorts of reasons. The underdog reason is one. A related one is the sense every time he makes it to a final that this might be his last big match. I expect Djokovic will get more support if he’s playing in Slam finals at age 34.
Amy, you mentioned that you don’t condone fandom spurred by racism or manifested offensively. I think there might be an undercurrent of ugliness to some of the anti-Djokovic behavior — a prejudice against Eastern Europe in general and Serbia in particular, and perhaps a preference for all the Swiss stereotypes of precision, elegance and chocolate. So I think we’d all agree that any overtly anti-Serbian behavior isn’t OK. I didn’t see it at the US Open, though, and haven’t seen it elsewhere. We’d just be speculating about the extent to which it motivated anyone.
I think the biggest factor in casual fans’ distaste for Djokovic is tired media narratives about him. I’m amazed I still read and hear in the US media, around almost all of his matches, the old stories about how he used to retire early in matches (which is hardly a criticism; if he couldn’t finish, better to stop playing), the impressions he did of other players (which I thought were well-done and in good spirit, by the way), the grunting (which he does way less than some other men’s players), and his attitude on court (which is passionate but also far more sportsmanlike than many of his peers, like conceding points, applauding good shots and enthusiastically congratulating the rare player who beats him). The supposed bad behavior, which I don’t even think was bad, is in any case not relevant to his last five years of dominance. It’d be as if before every Federer match in 2009, his teenage tantrums and haircuts were trotted out. I think casual fans in the US pay the most attention during the US Open, and if they keep hearing about Federer’s “classiness” and Djokovic’s prior “sins,” they will absorb and reflect that simple narrative, even if, as you say, Kelyn, Djokovic does all the right things. Add to that how much more hateful top players’ fans are of their favorites’ rivals than the players themselves are (as you encountered on Twitter, Kelyn), and you have some poorly founded preferences.
But I still want to draw the distinction between guessing at why fans supported Federer over Djokovic and how they behave. As Amy points out, a choice of favorite player is often irrational — as is, in a sense, all sports fandom. As a Mets fan, I have an irrational inability to understand why anyone would support the Yankees, but as long as they do so civilly and peacefully, I can’t condemn them.
Kelyn, I think your point about tennis being an individual sport making the rooting feel more personal is a great one, and one that I didn’t really consider before you made it. I am sure it was very challenging emotionally for Djokovic with the crowd rooting so hard against him.
I think it comes mostly down to where the crowd support came from. Recognizing that my own experience isn’t all-encompassing, what I felt from the crowd that night was Federer love and a quality of extreme desperation. Federer is ancient in the sport, and he could very well be one of the most beloved sporting figures of all-time. If a crowd of mostly casual tennis fans is ever going to go absolutely insane to try to lift him up to win another slam, that was the match to do it. (And like Carl said, the US Open crowd was being characteristically boisterous.)
To your other point about the Federer fan saying “No one likes you,” while I think it’s indeed unnecessary and unkind, bitter sports fans will always be bitter. Just check any player’s mentions after they upset a member of the Big Four. For example, why would you tweet nasty things about Dustin Brown? Ugh.
But let’s dissect Djokovic’s public image a bit, since Carl made some great points on that. As someone who is not a huge Djokovic fan, I think I have a few (valid or not) reasons for not warming to him. It’s definitely not for doing uncreative impressions of Rafael Nadal picking a wedgie. (I did actually love his Sharapova impression!) As Carl said, that stuff should be ancient history, and somehow isn’t.
Like Federer’s “classy” image and all the media fawning he gets over his aesthetically pleasing tennis, Djokovic’s is an easy narrative to latch onto: here’s a guy who’s won double digit slams, but he doesn’t get love from the fans like Roger and Rafa. It’s lazy and mostly untrue – Djokovic has plenty of fan support – much like Federer’s image does little to represent who he really is: a really dorky guy who tells dad jokes and giggles uncontrollably for 15 minutes trying to film a commercial with his biggest rival. None of that comes across in the vast majority of stories about him. Nadal’s narrative as a humble guy who can’t have fun is also completely inaccurate. By mentioning every time Djokovic is written about that he is disliked by fans, it perpetuates the sentiment. Lazy journalism is rampant in every beat, and sports journalists are among the worst offenders.
One common criticism you hear (occasionally from me) about Djokovic is that he comes across as desperate for fans to like him. Considering how well Djokovic handled himself in this particular final, while I think that narrative was grounded in reality at one point, it’s become overblown. In this US Open final, Djokovic showed great maturity where he may not have had it a few years ago. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s off-base to say that Djokovic probably more than any other great tennis player cares deeply if the crowd roots for him or against him. For many fans, this comes off as “trying too hard.” Like Carl, I would argue that it helps his results more than it hurts.
Plenty of my dislike for Djokovic comes from the fact that he’s beaten my favorite players more than I would like. I am still pretty pressed about the insane match he played against Juan Martin del Potro in the 2012 US Open quarters. (DELPO 2012 USO GIF INTERLUDE)
I also didn’t like when he ripped his shirt off after beating Stan Wawrinka in a fourth round five-setter at the 2013 Australian Open. I understand he was pumped to win such an epic match, but it was the fourth round and Stan was absolutely heartbroken. Heck, I was crying along with him (mainly because I cry at every single thing ever). So Djokovic doing that was just too much for me. Maybe that’s unfair. I doubt the shirt-ripping has anything to do with who he is as a person off-court.
Going even deeper, I wonder if this is the core of the discussion of Djokovic’s relationship with tennis fans: is Djokovic simply unlikeable for one reason or another?
In my day job, I work in political communications. I’ve worked to elect President Obama in 2008, and on many other federal and local campaigns.
Political campaigns are cults of personality. (This gets distilled further because they run on short deadlines.) Likeability matters so much more than it should. Stupid things candidates do, like having a beer with someone, going for a bike ride in dad jeans (Barack), or just having a wooden sense of humor (Romney) can change who will support you or not. It’s particularly disappointing when it happens in politics, considering how high the stakes are for the policies that these politicians create, so at least in sports it doesn’t matter nearly that much.
However, as human beings, we do this all the time. We look at a slimy politician, and without knowing a thing about them, we say to our friends, “That guy is slimy and gross.” Or we like someone completely superficially because of their friendly facial expression. Everyone makes those snap judgments every day about people they don’t know from Adam. Is that what’s going on here with Djokovic, or am I wrong to wonder if it’s a factor?
You both raise some really good points. Carl – I think the issue of Eastern European prejudice is an interesting one. I hadn’t really thought about that until I read this 2013 New Yorker article that explores why Djokovic is often living in the shadows of Federer and Nadal.
I would agree that there likely wasn’t any overt anti-Serbian behavior displayed at the US Open final and I don’t believe that is a main reason fans dislike him. As far as the players’ narrative feeding into how the public perceives them, I don’t believe the “no one likes Djokovic” story line had been that prevalent. I honestly feel I’ve met people who disliked Djokovic before this ever became something journalists wrote about.
And while I agree that the subject can get tired and journalists can fall into the trap of certain narratives, I felt the crowd response at the US Open was significant enough to delve into the issue. Sports journalists/reporters certainly weren’t the only ones talking about this. I think even if a casual fan tuned in on ESPN, they would find some amusement in the disparity of support between the two players.
I agree with both of you in that if you’re really peeling back a player’s persona, the three we keep mentioning probably have more alike than the common narratives would offer. I have colleagues who find Federer to be boring and think of him as someone who shows no emotion. (My reaction: What!?) Amy is completely correct in that sometimes we just react certain ways to certain people, even when they’re not really as bad (or good) as we think they are.
I understand sports fandom lends itself to that and while I try not to judge an athlete based on a few parcels of information, I realize that aspect of sports (the hating or loving a team/athlete) is what makes it fun for some people. I think I’m a little sensitive to this, because I realize if anyone judged me solely for how I behaved during a competitive/athletic setting, they would think/say the worst possible things about me. (I’m working on it, I promise!)
And so I think Amy’s point about this being fan’s perception of Djokovic is spot on. Is it fair? Probably not. But like you said, we can’t really feel bad for a guy who just won his 10th Grand Slam. And yes, of course he has fans. Many, many passionate fans. And I think Carl is right in that he will certainly get more support at a Grand Slam in his 30s as the “underdog.”
I think ultimately fans will like grow to like and support him more. Are there other players who have been comparable in terms of fan support? I want to say Hewitt was disliked but is now embraced as this elder statesman, but I wasn’t really as ardent of a tennis fan when he was in his prime, so I don’t know if that’s a fair comparison. Can you think of anyone else?
I think Amy’s comment that she resents Djokovic for playing so well in beating del Potro gets at some of the dislike Djokovic receives: He’s world No. 1 and when he’s at his best, he looks unbeatable. For neutral fans, that can be boring. For fans of his opponent, that can be maddening. Federer was a little like that in his prime, and he was less popular then than he is now. Two other things differentiate the Federer a decade ago from the Djokovic of today: Back then, Federer had Nadal as a foil; Djokovic doesn’t have anyone quite like that. And Federer wasn’t beating anyone as popular as Federer c. 2015, except maybe late-stage Agassi, who got huge crowd support against Federer in their 2005 US Open final.
I agree with Amy that some people are simply unlikable in a hard-to-explain way. Djokovic doesn’t seem that way to me at all.
That’s pretty anecdotal, though, and I’m not sure how to test it. I also think that when “likability” seems hard to explain, sometimes it’s tied to certain kinds of prejudice.
Kelyn, you’re right about Hewitt. I think Roddick also got more popular once he’d been stuck at one Slam title for years and Federer kept blocking him. Agassi also became more universally liked in his elder statesman years. I think Serena Williams is more popular today than before, even though she also is more unbeatable than ever, Vinci notwithstanding.
One last point: Simply measuring who is cheering for whom can magnify small differences. Suppose every fan in Ashe wanted Federer to win, but by a 51%-to-49% margin in his or her internal debate. Like, I prefer Federer, but just barely. That still adds up to a stadium that sounds like it is 100% behind Federer. (For a political analogy, imagine a presidential election in which one candidate wins every state by 51% to 49% — she would sweep nearly every electoral vote.) A few fans might actively have been rooting against Djokovic, but I bet many who preferred Federer only slightly sounded just as vehement.
Sports fans want what they want, even if they don’t want it that much more than the alternative.
You broached a point I think is important, Carl, on whether some fans just categorize Djokovic as unlikable because of some kind of prejudice. Like you, I don’t personally find Djokovic generally unlikable (strangely, there was a very short time when I was a really big fan of his), but I believe there are people who do, which is why I thought it was important to bring up.
I have no doubt that some of that can be chalked up to anti-Serb sentiment, particularly in certain parts of Europe. I’m not convinced it’s a huge factor in the United States. But I do want to stress that just because I haven’t personally come across it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and it’s possible that the anti-Serb sentiments that are present in other countries have played a role in shaping Djokovic’s overall relationship with fans, even those who may not care whatsoever about where Djokovic is from.
On Kelyn’s point about other players who haven’t been embraced, Ivan Lendl certainly had a rocky relationship with a lot of tennis fans. As I mentioned earlier, Victoria Azarenka is also an example of a player who has great on-court accomplishments but is disliked by a surprising number of tennis fans. I do suspect that Djokovic will get more and more crowd love as he gets older, especially if he plays until the point when he becomes the underdog.
Thanks for joining me! Readers, what do you think?
Are there really anti-Serb sentiments outside of the other Balkan countries?
Believe it or not, yes. I was sitting next to a group of boisterous fans on Grandstand during Troicki-Young and a number of their cheers contained anti-Serb sentiment (mostly references to the ’90s wars). It turned out, however, that one of the group had Albanian roots–and they stopped as soon as they learned I’m half-Serbian. As much as they wanted to get under Troicki’s skin (and did keep heckling him), they didn’t want to offend a proximate person. Sometimes, what seems to be anti-Serbian sentiment is actually just a form of American jingoism, as when a fan (seemingly upset some in the crowd weren’t rooting for the home talent) yelled out, “This ain’t Serbia” during Troicki-Tiafoe earlier in the week.
But both negative stereotypes & first impressions die hard, especially (as Carl notes) if they are constantly recirculated by the media. I don’t want to give this site clicks (or suggest that the author qualifies as “media”), so here are 3 excerpts from a blog post I read after the US Open.
“All of these faults [enumerated in the first part of the article] are flaws that Djokovic can fix to improve his image and popularity. However, there is one unpopular characteristic that Djokovic can never change. He is Serbian. The world number one is proud citizen of the small Eastern European nation, and is constantly trying to promote and improve its image. He is not doing too well.”
“Fans are unable to accept the disruption of the Western tradition of tennis by the Eastern European players. More than that, Djokovic is perfectly embodies the stereotypically negative traits of the Eastern European man- his hot-headed exuberance, questionable ethics, and his lack of sophistication.”
“Djokovic’s parents wore t-shirts with his face imprinted on them to the 2011 US Open final against Nadal, drawing much criticism, many finding the act compulsive and distasteful. It was so ostentatious. So warlike. So Eastern European. And that is the main reason why Djokovic will never achieve popularity, and unfortunately the one quality that he can never change.”
That this was written by an American of Asian descent, one too young to have read about the Balkan wars when they were happening, boggled my mind. The whole time I was reading, I kept wondering what the reaction would be if someone wrote a piece like this about Nishikori, generalizing not only about the Japanese but also about all of East Asia?! So, yes, I think unexamined prejudice related to ethnicity/nationality, region, & even economic class do play a role in some fans’ attitudes.
Talking to Horia Tecau in Washington last summer, he confirmed there’s a sense of second-class citizenship among ATP players from Eastern Europe (one Fognini didn’t help, by the way, in using an anti-Roma slur against Filip Krajinović last year). I wish he’d elaborated with his own examples, but I didn’t want to push.
Thanks for the thoughtful discussion, all. My main hope is that the comments don’t degenerate into justifications of fan dislike of Novak. Personally, I think the fact that Novak came up behind & eventually overtook two of the most popular players ever, Federer & Nadal, is the single biggest factor in fan resistance. Then again, millions of fans from all over the world love Djoković. Maybe you could invite some of them, starting with JJ Vallejo, to tell you why.
Thanks for weighing in, Ana! I appreciate your thoughtful comment.
Damn, that’s pretty fucked up. Hard to believe someone would write that and willingly expose int to the general public in the year 2015.
Great piece. As Amy knows, I just vowed to ban myself from using the unloved-Novak trope anymore. It’s an easy one, and lends vulnerability to a player who increasingly has less and less of it on the court. I stand by that — there are better stories to tell about him, and I want for him a better and more interesting narrative. There were far too many articles about him post-US Open that hung on the crowd issue, I think at the expense of the emerging story of how he plans to try to make history of his own, and, most intriguingly, where he thinks he will find challenges — who are his real rivals? What does he think of the next generation? Can he articulate what Boris has meant to him (my take: learning to give no f—s, or at least fewer f—s)? How long does he want to play? Is he having more kids? So many questions, but he got asked about a partisan crowd for the gazillionth time.
I think the Eastern European angle is an interesting one — ultimately, it may play more strongly in Europe than in North America, at least on an overt level. I do think that fans and players from Eastern Europe, like the countries they are from, can suffer from a feeling of being “less” European or “less” accepted. Much of this is borne out in intra-Europe relations, as well as the economic and political realities of life in Europe at the moment (e.g. it’s the Eastern European countries who had to petition to be admitted into the Eurozone, it’s their citizens who have migrated to Western Europe in large numbers, not vice versa — Prague and Budapest expats excepted of course). I do see that sense of struggle against Western European dominance in more pro-Novak fans than I see an anti-Novak prejudice borne of these issues. It is an undercurrent, but I’d say it bolsters pro-Novak fans more than it makes people turn against him at this juncture. But I agree that it can’t be discounted as a factor.
It’s always dangerous to step into the murky waters of inter-fanbase squabbles. Social media in particular has made it easy for the most vitriolic fans to go after not only the fans of other players but sometimes players themselves. The bottom line is that today’s top players are all likeable in their own ways. No one is an ogre. Fans are going to love and hate these folks based on their own personal preferences. As long as those preferences aren’t for unacceptable reasons (racism, bigotry etc.), I don’t think scolding of fans for not warming to one player or another is in order.
Similarly, what I find irritating and condescending is the idea that fans have been bamboozled into liking or disliking one player or another. For sure media packaging and spin control can affect the public persona of any individual, and that can’t be ignored. But most fans glom on to a player because of the things that are obvious — people loved Michael Jordan because of his exciting style of play and his winning ways, despite the fact that he was, by all accounts, not a nice guy, unkind to teammates etc. etc. Some of that was PR/sponsor spin (“be like Mike”), but a lot of it was just liking watching the guy play. I think Federer’s fanbase is similarly inclined, but now it also has the additional boost of those wanting a veteran to have one last moment of glory. I, for one, doubt that Federer’s unfortunate foray into gold lamé got him any new fans (despite its elite/luxury connotations). At the end of the day, most people have come to love Federer, Djokovic, Nadal and many others because they like what they see — the way the guys play, and otherwise comport themselves.
A good example of is the Isner-Monfils match at the US Open a couple of years ago. On paper, Isner should have been a heavy crowd favorite — but Monfils is a walking highlight reel, and people love to watch him play — and rooted for him all the way. Isner complained during and after the match, scolding the crowd for not supporting him. It’s understandable that Isner felt he was due more support, but the lesson is that no one is promised a fanbase, regardless of who you are or what you do.
Fandom is an irrational act. It speaks more to an emotional connection to a player than to any reasoned approach of taking on a cause to support. Some players are going resonate with fans more than others, and some will earn more support over time as people begin to see them in a more generous and accepting light (Navratilova is a good example). That tennis has so many impassioned fandoms these days speaks to the amazing cast of characters in the sport now. So, enough with scolding fans for their preferences — we’re lucky that so many people care so much.
Thanks for a good discussion on a crazy phenomena.
The underdog card is trumped here because this doesn’t happen anytime Roger is the favourite (i.e., against any other player not named Djokovic or Nadal).
As a huge underdog in the 2009 US Open final, Del Potro enjoyed no such support from the Ashe crowd.
And tennis is not the only sport that demands fans respect their rivals. (See golf, for example).
Fans don’t dislike Djokovic because he’s not Federer, but because he stops Federer.
Nadal would have been treated the same.
Djokovic was treated poorly by the same fan group in an earlier match vs RBA.
Had Federer been eliminated, Djokovic would have seen no such poor treatment as was the case in the 2010-2013 US Open finals.
If tennis should allow for crowd noise, then why not golf, an even quieter sport?
Recall that McEnroe – who could be a real jerk – was beloved by many because he had a pretty game that a lot of us wished we could play. Federer has touch, variety of shot and an attacking style. He’s almost a throwback to the classic style, but with lots more power. Novak is more like that baseline dinker that keeps getting back your best shots. Of course Novak doesn’t dink and has an assortment of weapons himself, but they aren’t as obvious. I’m one of the few people I know that like seeing Djokovic win.
Like it or not, Djokovic for many people represents a dangerous strain of irredentist Serb nationalism. A lot of it is unfair, because he is very religious and thus gets roped into the politics of the Serbian Orthodox Church, but if you keep saying “Kosovo is Serbia” and indulge in the “Woe is us” nationalist pity party that engulfs not just Serbs, but Albanians, Bosniaks and Croats, you’re going to get the reputation of an irredentist Serb nationalist. And people are touchy on that, because those politics justified killing and oppressing a lot of people in the last century. So it is not necessarily that feeling against Djokovic is anti-Serb among those fans who make it an issue, but a fear of the politics to which he has subscribed and gets tied.
How about the fact that most Federer fans know that the window of opportunity is closing and are a little desperate to see their guy win one last big one? When Federer plays anyone, the crowd is pretty much on his side. Novak doesn’t help his case by acting like he is entitled to crowd support and showing anger that the crowd backs Fed. That creates the ugly scene we saw at the US Open final.
I think this is a key point. Fed’s huge fan base wants him to win that one last slam title.
Enjoyed reading the discussion. A lot of it, for obvious reasons, revolved around Djokovic crowds in lieu of Federer, but I thought the Roland Garros final crowd was very interesting. Novak in all his finals and SF matchups with Rafa was usually not the crowd favorite (it seemed as if the French don’t like the underdog narratives as much as NY crowds). Novak, and this may play to Amy’s point about him trying too hard, took up French and is actually pretty fluent now (I think he speaks like 7 languages now, no joke). He seemed to be garnering more support this year and I was almost certain that after not getting much crowd love that French crowds would try and will him to win since he had been so close so many times. Not so. Crowd seemed overwhelmingly in favor of Wawrinka. I was surprised. I think Djokovic was surprised. This guy has been runner-up for a while, you got the sense that he was due for a win and that the crowd would try to push him over the finish line.
As someone who has followed Djokovic closely since 2007, I think crowds would get (or used to get) in his head when he’d expect a different reaction than what he’d end up receiving. I think that RG this year kind of shocked him – whereas Wimbledon and US Open against Fed he was expecting to go up against very hostile crowds. In the past, bottling up that emotion would harm him (2013 US Open F against Rafa, 2013 Wimbledon F against Murray, even 2011 US Open SF against Roger up until the crowd turned in his favor after “The Shot” and the subsequent hands up in exasperation at the lack of applause). You could tell he was trying not to show any emotion that may set off the crowd, but ended up playing tighter and tighter as it became self-defeating. However now maybe, he’s found a way to power through it or maybe use it as fuel the way Kobe or Jordan did. I think fighting the mental battle to win these majors against hostile crowds is a boon to his legacy – it’s something Federer, Nadal, Sampras, Borg never had to face. In Novak’s younger days, he’d let the crowds get to him and you’d see him visibly give up as if to say not just to his opponent, but to the crowd, “Fine. You win.” To see that maturation from then to what he does now has been remarkable.
Becker has to take credit for that. I’m all for people changing and while some of the change in Novak has been good, some of it has been a little sad too. Where has all the jokes/fun gone?
I was going to pass this by because this Federer fan is really over the “why don’t folks have more Novak appreciation” discussions but Courtney gave an incredible response to this in a previous Changeover that I decided to give this a read. I think this was a pretty good discussion and I’ll just add this: there was no way Djokovic was going to respond to that NYC crowd in any other way than he did. If it is one thing I give him credit for is learning his lesson. Remember, he has history with NYC from a long ago Roddick match and he was not going down that road again. My observation is he loves sending those Federer loving crowds home in misery. That’s almost as good as that check and trophy. It would be a little odd if, given good PR counseling, he was still doing that stuff he did when he was younger. Fans can have long memories. The New Yorker profile from a few years back reveals how much he and his family expected to to see returns (endorsements) on their sacrifice. That won’t happen if you make too many people angry.
I love Novak Djokovic! What happens to him on a tennis court affects my mood a lot more than I would care to admit. When I started to wonder if there was something wrong with me because I liked Djokovic, I knew the narratives about him have gone too far. After every big win this year, it was “why no one likes Djokovic?” Why is this the only story that people have decided to tell? Why is Novak being cast as some sort of victim? Novak wins the Laureaus Sportsman award and the only people to question this was the tennis community/journalists. They were the ones who didn’t think he deserved it. I honestly hope he concentrates on getting fans outside of tennis because the tennis community is too damn lazy to leave behind tired narratives. It must be hard finding a new angle on the same person each week.
My thoughts on this (with apologies for rehashing any points already made by others):
– There’s a difference between rooting for a player and rooting against the opponent. While some people might have been booing and acting obnoxiously toward Djokovic, I’m sure most of the Federer fans were more along the lines of cheering for Federer.
– People in the crowd have the right to cheer for whoever they want. Some of the articles and tweets written on this topic act as if the crowd is wrong or stupid for cheering for Djokovic’s opponents. (They are right to condemn obnoxious behavior, such as calling out during serves, though).
– It’s not as if Djokovic doesn’t have fans; he just doesn’t have as many as Federer. And who does???? No one should expect the crowd to be on their side when playing against Federer; it probably won’t happen. Prime example: at the London finals tournament last year, more people cheered for Federer than “home favorite” Andy Murray.
– Djokovic’s biggest crime is that he isn’t Federer, or Nadal for that matter. Federer versus Nadal was one of the biggest rivalries of all time, and even though their matches over the last few years have been duds, they still get an unrivaled amount of anticipation. Keep in mind that due to Nadal’s many injuries, fans of the Fedal rivalry haven’t gotten their fill of it.
– Crowds usually love an underdog, and since winning Wimbledon in 2014, Djokovic has been anything but an underdog.
– Djokovic may not have as big a fan base as Fedal, but he is appreciated. Just look at how the French crowd reacted during the runner up trophy presentation this year.
Great post. As a Novak fan, these “Novak Djokovic is Unloved, Here’s Why You Should Love Him” articles are pretty annoying that they actually give people who don’t like him platform to scream “he will never be as loved as Roger/Rafa!!!!11!!!!! you will never make me like him!!!11!!!” which usually devolves into an argument about how he’s not liked enough, and invites more people to dislike him because they don’t want to be told who to like.
The media can write as many articles as they want about it, but they really were the ones who started it. Novak is almost always the antagonist in tennis narratives, and really, the way Novak is described in widely-read media can be really unflattering. “Machine”, “Antagonist”, “Robotic”, “Efficient”– those are not words that inspire empathy. They’re essentially writing a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I don’t think they realize it.
It’s a shame because Novak is a really interesting player– the popular narrative makes people think they got him figured out, and yet. He’s practically a walking oxymoron. I actually started following this blog because one of its contributors– Juan Jose- used to write Novak in a way that normal writers write tennis players instead of easily following narratives- he writes Novak as a tennis player. There’s no assumption that he’s unloved, there’s no assumption that he needs to be loved. He just is. If people like him that’s great, if people don’t like him, fine. But here he is, here’s his game, and here’s his potential. This is why he lose, this is why he wins. He goes to play on the court to win just like everyone else, not to stop legacies or break hearts or be an efficient robot or anything. And I wish more writers do that, instead of, you know, focusing on the tired narratives.
In my view, most of the ‘dislike’ aimed at Djokovic was a direct result of the propaganda driven by western media. Media is very orchestrated in their writing.
Just a few examples.
After US Open 15 every single article is about Djokovic being disliked. With no evidence on the matter.
After Australian Open 15 it was all about Djokovic faking an injury in the final against Murray and deceiving him into loss. With no evidence on the matter.
In Wimbledon 15 it was about Djokovic communicating with Becker thus – cheating. With no evidence on the matter.
So media has agenda to shed bad light onto Djokovic. And since he has matured and does not repeat ‘sins from the adolescence’ they invent one.
So if you repeat to average people ALL the time that he is BAD SPORT, BRASH, CHEATER, DISLIKED, they behave accordingly.
The American tennis media definitely picks its winners and losers. It gets old fast, and doesn’t help every player (se Bouchard, Eugenie and Stephens, Sloane). If you’re actually a fan and follow tennis, the archetypes they ascribe to players are so obviously flawed. For example: Sloane beat Serena, but where is she now? (um, she beat a very obviously injured Serena. SHe’s at about the sam place, but slumping slightly, as many players do. She’s been injured and is on an upswing).
FWIW, this is why I love the Changeover. I feel like the bloggers write the opinions they have, not the opinions IMG has paid them to have.
Doesn’t anyone remember Lendl? He not only had Jimmy and John jibing at him but with his dour face and Eastern European background he was never a crowd favorite.( I saw him as a junior and I never saw worse teeth on a tennis player which accounted for him adopting a great stone face.) But he had a lot of mental strength and belief in himself which carried him to his victories. As for Djoko I was at the Open leaning over to watch the Grandstand when he played Monfils. Gael is too nice and should have demanded a default as Djoko repeatedly called for the trainer. It took me a long time to come around to him as it always does when he has to play a champion who is that popular. I also saw Fed when he was younger play careless almost indifferent tennis until he summoned his skills and learned to win. One always wishes that your favorite will play forever until they don’t. My husband is still mourning Stefan Edberg.
Why Fed and Rafa are better-loved than Djokovic? I think the best answer comes from Carl Jung’s theories of collective unconscious and archetypes. Humanity has always used archetypes when making up its opinions about people. Federer and Nadal are easy in this aspect: Fed fits the Royal/Prince archetype (as reflected in the way he plays and comparts himself in public, as well as in his looks) while Nadal is either the top pirate or the young-hero-on-his-journey (the one who ends up succeeding hugely, of course). Here again, his public persona and style of playing tennis help create these archetypes/stereotypes.
Of course these descriptions miss a lot (there is not much of the royal in private dorky Roger) but they are helpful and easy. Even Murray is easily identified as ‘surly but courageous Scot’. But Novak? In the past he might have fitted the clown archetype, but since he got serious about winning, he is just a puzzle to most people. Unless you are such a tennis buff that you fall in love with his game and then bothers to learn more about him, it’s just hard to feel any kind of connection with Djokovic. People don’t see in him any of the familiar archetypes of our world.
How important these archetypes are can be proved by ‘how I became a fan’ stories. Many Fed fans and Nadal fans became fans the first time they saw their future favorite. Heck, it took me about 2 minutes to fall in love with Fed forever – and I wasn’t even seeing him live.
I know there are many Djokovic fans out there, but my feeling is that most of them didn’t ‘choose’ him as quickly and passionately as many Fed and Rafa fans did. He is likeable enough – but, when you can’t use archetypes to define somebody you don’t really know to yourself, it will usually take you longer to warm to this person – and some people never will, at least not as long they have somebody else who fits a favorite archetype of theirs.
Novak the person seems eminently likable. The jokes, the giggle fits, the adorable wife, all winners. Unfortunately, Novak, the tennis player, not so much.
My first notice of him occurred when he won the Australian Open against Tsonga. Tsonga was that tournament’s darling. Novak had been the underdog up until that final, and did a lot of time wasting, crowd screaming, chest thumping, etc. He didn’t come across well. As he has aged, he has tamed some of his more obnoxious elements, but they’re still there. They were out in full force in Australia against Murray. (FWIW, the only reason Murray gets away with the same behaviors now is that he is still an underdog much of the time – you can relate to his frustration against Fed and Djokovic).
Add that to the fact that his game is not captivating, and well, he’s not going to be loved on the court. He is sooo talented, but any day I would rather watch Fed find his way to a beautiful one handed cross court backhand winner, or Murray playing an ill-advised drop shot, or Juan Martin del Potro hit an insane running forehand (sniff). I’d rather watch Stan muscle his way across the net with the most amazing power, or watch in amazement as Monfils does somethings crazy.
Djokovic has amazing talent, and for that he is rewarded with trophies. But that is not all it takes to draw most viewers in.
Novak was in Serbia last week. He was asked by Serbian reporters about the US Open Final crowd.
“I was aware of this, I played against one of the best players in the world and I knew that most of the public was going to support him. I was ready for it, I was surprised by how the other people have reacted. I wasn’t angry with the public, I turned this aspect in something positive, they gave me energy. I was focused on what I had to do. There were ups and downs, he played aggressive and tactically wasn’t easy.”
Same reporters talked Boris about it:
“Probably he played against the most popular player ever, the one who had more success. If he will win another Slam, he will become the oldest Slam champion since Rosewall – here is why they support Federer. They don’t cheer against Novak. When someone like Nole is the favorite, it is normal to support the other players, it always happens in the world of sport”. And Novak interrupts the interview saying: “So you never supported me (laughs)”.
“At Wimbledon I think the public was 50-50, in Paris there was a beatiful atmosphere. Now the fans have more familiarity with Novak for what he does on-court and off-court
Good and objective points in upper texts.
But, nobody talk about main factor in sport newdays – money, and its reflection on players.
I just wonder, could it be that NIKE(or else) do not want to much affirmative stories about No1 if they pay a lot of money to No2? People could think that BRAND is also No2. I expect Fed to be at least No4 when he retired.
Things will be changed when DJoko make lot of sponsorship money. I expect more affirmative texts in near future from that reason.
I also think this is not FED-Djoko fight.
They are both very intelligent on court(I saw how Novak improve his game to catch up Fed, but also what Fed doing last seasons is for adoration – they huge improves each other ), but newspaper fight is not in their hand
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