A pattern has emerged in the later rounds of men’s Grand Slams over the last year. Novak Djokovic faces Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer. Djokovic, usually, wins. The audience, just as often, comes away disappointed.
This phenomenon was most obvious at Roland Garros in 2011, when Federer was the severe crowd favorite in his semi against the Serb. But it was just as true at Flushing Meadows, where Sarah Jessica Parker and the rest of the New York City audience came to life as Nadal was doing the same late in the third set. And it was true again in Rod Laver Arena early Monday morning. The biggest roar of the six-hour final accompanied an inside-out forehand winner that Nadal ripped when he was up 4-2 in the fifth set. For the first time in hours, it appeared that Rafa was going to win. The crowd was ready to help get him home. He didn't make it, and they were left to cheer appreciatively, but not wildly, for the champ.
Djokovic is the world’s best player by a country mile at the moment. He’ll head for Paris in May trying to become the first man since 1969 to win four straight majors—the Djoker Slam. But while he is a king in his home country, on the evidence of the audience reactions I’ve seen over the last 12 months, he has yet to conquer the hearts of tennis fans worldwide. This shouldn’t be all that surprising. Fans rarely accept new stars right away in this sport, especially when they’re knocking off old favorites. And Federer and Nadal aren’t just any old favorites. Few players have enjoyed the worldwide popularity that they have. Together they seem to account for every tennis fan on earth; if most of us are either in Roger’s or Rafa’s camp, that doesn’t leave a lot of love left over for Nole. For even more casual observers, the general attitude might be summed up by ESPN pundit Tony Kornheiser's line about the changes at the top of the men’s game: “Djokovic? I was just getting used to Nadal.”
This isn’t to say that Djokovic is a modern-day Ivan Lendl, a dour, unbeatable villain presiding over the demise of a beloved rivalry and golden age. But he did rub people the wrong way in his brash early days, with his noisy entourage, on-court ailments, and protracted ball bouncing. Despite his historic effort at this year’s Aussie Open, his shirtless, screaming victory celebration likely didn’t win him many new fans from the sport’s traditionalist base, the same fans who have made Federer a demigod for the better part of a decade.
OK, Djokovic is not the elegant maestro; nor does he exude the childlike passion for the sport that has endeared Nadal to so many. Not every champion is going to be beloved, but tennis fans should be getting used to the idea that this one is here to stay, and that the Federer-Nadal duopoly no longer rules. What’s a diehard Roger or Rafa fan to do in these dark times? You know what they say: Focus on the positive. Here are four things that any tennis fan should be able to appreciate about Novak Djokovic.
Djokovic is a good sport in two senses of the word
It’s true that he has retired from matches that looked like losing causes, rather than going down with the ship. And his full-scream victory celebrations may seem over the top to some. But Djokovic is also quick to applaud an opponent’s good shot, even when he’s behind in the score. And after a tough defeat, like his loss to Federer at the French Open last year, he’ll still go in for the congratulatory hug.
He’s also a good sport in the other sense of the word. During the Aussie Open, the Bryan brothers talked about how, unlike other top players who will keep their distance, he was happy to jump onstage with their band and rap with them. Djokovic was also happy to do the same thing a few minutes after his exhausting win over Nadal, when he reportedly belted out a rendition of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” at the Aussie Open staff party. Uptight he isn't.
Djokovic is a versatile performer
The players put on an exhibition before the weekend before the Australian Open began. Djokovic, as he typically is in these situations, was at the center of the fun, pretending to have a heart attack on the court.
Two weeks later, in a very different mood, Djokovic found just the right words and tone in his trophy speech after the final. He recognized that it had been a battle that could have gone either way, and he began by emphasizing the collaboration between the two players in making it an epic match: “We made history,” he told Nadal. There was pride but no sense of triumphalism in any of his words during the speech. For a top athlete, celebrity, and national figure in his country, Djokovic exhibits surprisingly little ego or self-regard.
Djokovic’s return of serve alone is worth the price of admission
He often doesn’t appear to be doing anything spectacular on the court; Djokovic’s game is based more on lack of weaknesses than it is on standout shot-making. But Nadal, for one, in his post-final presser, was impressed by one element of his game in particular. Without being asked, Rafa sang a short hymn to the Djokovic return of serve, saying it had to be one of the “best of history.”
Watch Djokovic hit returns next time he plays. He makes a spectator sport out of that shot alone, the same way Pete Sampras did with the serve. On one point, he’ll hit it early with his backhand, direct the ball at a sharp crosscourt angle, and take the initiative from his opponent with one swing. On the next point, he’ll leap out of the way of a serve hit right at him and reflex back a deep forehand return while his body is moving in the other direction. Djokovic's particular athletic mix—his balance, quickness, and hand-eye—is on full display when he's returning.
In the Aussie Open final, Djokovic combined the best of Federer and Nadal
For the better part of three sets, he made beating a 10-time Slam winner look ridiculously easy. Djokovic moved smoothy, almost casually. He controlled the rallies without taking big risks. He got the ball into Nadal’s backhand seemingly at will. He dialed the pace up as needed. Like Federer, he made all of it appear effortless.
In the end, though, it took effort, a lot of it. In the end, Djokovic needed to out-Rafa Rafa. Down 5-4 in the fifth set, with the crowd against him again, having run for 10 hours over the last three days, Djokovic came out after the changeover and started firing with more confidence than he had shown all set. He shrugged off the disappointment of blowing the fourth, and won the last three games against a guy who was 15-3 in five-set matches.
Federer and Nadal fans may not have loved seeing another Slam fall to the world No. 1, but it was an effort worthy of the era that those two players began, and that Djokovic is poised to continue. It was worthy of a round of applause from any tennis lover.