Why does no one like Novak Djokovic? If Roger Federer is the player that even non-tennis fans can’t help but fawn over, Djokovic has few admirers. The world number one smashed two racquets during his defeat to Pablo Carreno Busta in the semi-finals of the Tokyo Olympics yesterday. The game marked the end of Djokovic’s dream of achieving the Golden Slam by winning four grand slams and Olympic gold in the same year.
While Djokovic still had a phenomenal year, even champions have bad days. But despite his many achievements, there is a palpable sense that a lot of fans were happy to see him lose — both the game itself and his temper. It’s fair to say that Djokovic is a polarizing figure, so criticism is not unusual for the 33-year-old Serbian. He has, in fact, been a target for hostility for most of his career, from crowds and the media. Does he deserve this special scorn?
Djokovic is not an easy man to like. Sometimes after he beats an opponent, he mocks the previously hostile crowd. His celebrations can be overly dramatic. Last year, early in the pandemic, he sparked widespread controversy when he said that he was ‘personally…opposed to vaccination’ (he later clarified that he was against compulsory vaccination).
Djokovic was also forced to apologize after he organized a tournament in the middle of the first wave that ended with several players — including Djokovic himself — testing positive for COVID. Despite saying sorry, Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios spoke for more than just himself when he said the decision to keep playing was ‘bone-headed’.
Yet whatever the verdict of his fellow players — and indeed that of Piers Morgan, who called Djokovic a ‘spoilt brat’ after his performance at the Olympics — what’s the truth about Djokovic?
Off the court, Djokovic is by all accounts a perfectly jovial and warm person. Through his foundation, he raises and donates millions of dollars for a number of causes in his native Serbia and abroad. At the height of the pandemic, Djokovic’s family donated over $1 million for the purchase of ventilators and medical equipment to support hospitals and other healthcare institutions in their fight against the coronavirus in Serbia. Not bad for a person some falsely claim to be a ‘COVID-denier’.
Is there something darker at the root of much of the antipathy against Djokovic? For some tennis fans, there is no doubt that he is an interloper, and as such he is faced with what is often little more than pure snobbery. He’s a kid from the Balkans — neither as suave as the Swiss champion Roger Federer, nor as pretty and smiley as the Spanish player Rafael Nadal — interrupting that beautiful rivalry and dominating the courts. How dare he.
Djokovic isn’t the only player to lose his temper on court. We’ve seen similar outbursts by champions like Serena Williams and Roger Federer. Yet despite some haranguing at the time, neither faced anything close to the intense and enduring dislike directed at Djokovic. Why?
Djokovic is one of the best tennis players the world has ever seen, breaking record after record. He is an icon to the young people of his troubled country, and dedicates his time and wealth to helping them out. He also tries to stand up for younger players coming up into the game. But too often, in Djokovic’s case, these things go unseen. You can hardly blame Djokovic for sometimes losing his temper and taunting his opponents.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.