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, for Senator Arlen Specter after he switched political parties, 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?