Robotic, yet beautifully human – the conundrum of being Djokovic
Serbia’s Novak Djokovic may have failed to make another piece of history when he fell short in his quest to win all four tennis majors in a calendar year, but he finally received the love of strangers.
In the final changeover before Russian world No 2 Daniil Medvedev served out the match to record his first-ever singles Grand Slam title, at the 2021 US Open, Djokovic shed his robotic shell.
Few players divide opinion like the world No 1. Djokovic is a relentless winner, fiercely competitive, hugely talented, manically driven and deeply intelligent. It’s a combination that enthrals, upsets and scares people in equal measure. He cannot be put neatly in a box marked “tennis player”.
At the top end of tennis’s hyper-sanitised world, opinions are only really welcomed when they toe a certain party line. When players challenge a system, as Djokovic has done with attempts to form a breakaway players’ union and criticising officials for harsh lockdown rules, they are often vilified. And social media amplifies the vilification.
Much of that he brings on himself. Djokovic is, shall we say, a Covid-19 vaccination sceptic. Given the overwhelming scientific evidence showing that vaccinations work and are safe, it’s a dangerous position for someone of his influence to hold.
But he holds a position, which is more than most prominent sportspeople do, however misguided. And that is the conundrum of being Novak.
He is simultaneously likeable and unbearable. In parallel, he is intensely distant, robotic, yet beautifully human. He is a constant paradox as a person and “celebrity”. Yet, on the tennis court, there is no grey area because he is simply a serial winner.
Before Sunday’s 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 loss to Medvedev in the US Open final, Djokovic had won 27 straight Grand Slam singles matches in 2021 and was in search of his 21st career major. That would have taken him ahead of rivals Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer in the quest to end their careers with the most Grand Slam singles titles of all time.
The trio are locked on 20 apiece and it looks increasingly unlikely that the 40-yearold Federer will add to his brilliant collection. Nadal (35) has at least one more French Open on Roland Garros’ red clay in him. And Djokovic (34), having won 27 of 28 matches at majors this year, must have a few more to go as well.
But finishing as statistically the best tennis player isn’t enough for Djokovic. He craves the love that Nadal and Federer enjoy from legions of not only tennis fans, but sports fans in general. Djokovic has his core supporters, but he has never been embraced in the way the other two pillars of the triangle are, and it hurts.
Which is why, when he held serve to take it to 4-5 in the third set at the Arthur Ashe Stadium on 12 September and the crowd started chanting “Nole! Nole!” as he sat down, it all became too much for Djokovic.
What should have been his crowning glory as a tennis player – winning all four majors in a calendar year – had slipped away.
Medvedev, with his almost unbreakable serve, was about to serve for the championship and the dream was all but over for Djokovic. His chance to do something only done three times in the men’s game – by Don Budge and Rod Laver (twice) – was out of reach.
But in that moment, the New York crowd, who had for years shunned Djokovic, embraced him with their love. They understood what he had achieved in tennis in 2021 and through his career. They not only acknowledged his greatness as a player, but his humanity as they chanted his name.
Djokovic broke down and sobbed, hiding his face in a towel in an attempt to mask his most human moment on a tennis court. Knowing that the last leg of an impossible tennis dream was out of reach was tempered by the reception of love from the crowd that he had never before been given.
It was a beautiful snapshot of sport and drama. A man who has changed the face of the way tennis is played finally let his façade slip in the most public of ways. It was okay to admit that the love of strangers, and their acknowledgment of his greatness and sacrifice to become a transcendent athlete, in that moment, mattered more than winning.
“I felt something I never felt in my life here in New York. The crowd made me very special,” Djokovic said afterwards.
“They pleasantly surprised me. I did not know, I did not expect anything, but the amount of support and energy and love I got from the crowd was something that I’ll remember forever. I mean, that’s the reason, on the changeover, I just teared up. The emotion, the energy was so strong. I mean, it’s as strong as winning 21 Grand Slams. That’s how I felt, honestly. I felt very, very special.
“They touched my heart, honestly. Of course, at the end of the day you want to win. You’re a professional athlete. These are the kind of moments that you cherish. These are connections that you establish with people that will be lasting for a very long time.”
Medvedev, who is the star in a future generation of players, had enough empathy to know that even in his own greatest moment, it was appropriate to acknowledge Djokovic’s legacy: “First of all, I want to say sorry for the fans and Novak because we all know what he was going for today. I just want to say that you have been brilliant this year and throughout your career,” he said.
“I have never said this to anybody. But I will say it right now. For me, you are the greatest tennis player in history.”
Nothing more needed to be said. In New York over the past fortnight, Djokovic flirted with history and came up short. He lost a final and a record. But in the end, he gained so much more.