The straw that stirs the drink: How Novak Djokovic found his identity

The straw that stirs the drink: How Novak Djokovic found his identity

The first installment of "The 2/21" focuses on the Serb's sometimes-rocky, always-interesting rise into the sport's most dominant player and personality.

Nestled between January's summer swing of tournaments in Australia, and March's Sunshine Double in the U.S., February can be overlooked in tennis. But not in 2021, with the Australian Open's temporary move to the second and shortest month of the calendar. Beyond that, February is Black History Month, and also a pivotal time for the sport in its rebound from the pandemic.

To commemorate this convergence of events, we're spotlighting one important story per day, all month long, in The 2/21. Set your clock to it: it will drop each afternoon, at 2:21 Eastern Standard Time (U.S.).

Back in the heyday of the New York Yankees, slugger Reggie Jackson boasted that he was “The straw that stirs the drink.”

In this golden age of tennis, where the troika consisting of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic commands the sport the way Jackson’s Yankees once were the overlords of the diamond, Djokovic has become the “straw.”

Djokovic’s ascent into that role has been dramatic and somewhat unexpected. He’s evolved from an approval seeking newcomer—and third wheel in the “Fedal” rivalry—into the dominant player of recent years and, now, an edgy, self-appointed leader, activist and ambassador. The transformation has been controversial as well as eye-opening.

Since the start of the pandemic, the top-ranked, 33-year-old, 17-time Grand Slam champion has become the most proactive of pro tennis players. Almost all of his actions in recent months have been criticized, sometimes heavily, but none of them has taken place in the shadow of Federer or Nadal. Djokovic is now perceived as someone who isn’t just about the rankings. He has a new identity.

Addressing this evolution at Roland Garros, Djokovic said:

“One of the things in life I strongly believe is that the only constant is change. It’s normal for me that I have changed my personality, my mindset, my lifestyle. There are some things that you grow up with that, of course, you stick with, kind of your core values. At the same time, life is always challenging you and forcing you to adapt. So I've been quite open-minded in life to really receive whatever life throws at me and try to make the most out of it.”

What life threw at Djokovic early on was Federer and Nadal, and the challenge of distinguishing himself from them on the court as well as in the perception of fans. He mastered the first task swiftly. The second proved more daunting.

Djokovic got off to a rocky start in the endeavor. In his very first meeting with Nadal, in the 2006 Roland Garros quarterfinals, Djokovic abandoned his efforts due to respiratory problems after losing the first two sets, 6-4, 6-4. He then bemoaned the lost opportunity in his post-match press conference, claiming, despite the scoreline, that he felt “in control of the match.”

At the time, Djokovic was 19. Impetuous and eager, he was crashing the status quo from Serbia, a tennis outpost where there’s never been a confidence shortage. In the ensuing years, Djokovic tried mightily to win over fans. He danced for them after matches, he provided on-court imitations of his peers. But his hunger for an equal share of the love bestowed on his two rivals was consistently rebuked.

It didn’t help Djokovic’s case that he developed a pattern of broadcasting assorted injuries and frequently calling for medical timeouts. Before his match with Djokovic in the quarterfinals of the 2008 US Open, Andy Roddick publicly called out the Serb, sarcastically asked if his ailments also included the “bird flu” or “SARS.” He said of Djokovic’s injuries: "It's just a lot. He's either quick to call the trainer—or he's the most courageous guy of all time."

Djokoic beat the pants off Roddick in their match, but as he clapped back against Roddick’s comments in his post-match interview, fans showered him with boos. You could put the incident down to Roddick being an American in Flushing Meadows, but there was a deficit of love everywhere for the ever-improving Serb. In the fan base, being a Djokovic fan for many years was akin to choosing generic cola over Coke or Pepsi.

All that changed as Djokovic’s status grew and he developed a greater, more adult understanding of his job and a variety of other cultures and values. His very real, natural curiosity bore fruit. Djokovic grew increasingly philosophical, and exhibited peripatetic interests, including a fascination with spiritual tranquility and other New Age-y preoccupations.

But it took the pandemic to weld all the pieces together and inspire Djokovic to make a dramatic course alteration. The process began with a disaster: the June collapse of his brainchild, the Adria Tour. Enormous mistakes were made by Djokovic and company in flagrant disregard of basic COVID-19 safety protocols. By the time the tour was canceled, after just one of four planned events was completed, Djokovic was viewed almost universally as a pariah.

After the initial hoo-hah, though, Djokovic’s claim that he was “organizing a humanitarian event to help players and tennis federations in the Balkan region” gained some traction. Paul Annacone, the Tennis Channel analyst, told colleague Jon Wertheim, “His (Djokovic’s) passion to do something good clouded all the information, all the science. It was a good cause, driven by the right reason, but the end result was pretty disastrous.”

The next step in Djokovic’s transformation was his leading role (with fellow pro Vasek Pospisil) in creating the Professional Tennis Players Association, which many perceive as a direct threat to the ATP and stability in the game. Others see it as an exercise in futility and, perhaps worse, ill-informed grandstanding. The ATP, many noted, is already a player association, designed to work hand-in-hand with tournaments.

As with the Adria Tour, there were significant missteps in the formation of the PTPA. Most striking among them: ignoring the WTA. Whatever the fate of the PTPA (WTA players were swiftly recruited in response to the criticism), which is vigorously opposed by Djokovic’s peers in the Big 3 and other leading players, Djokovic has positioned himself as the spokesperson for the rank-and-file in a tour that heavily favors—and relies on—the top stars.

Djokovic’s most recent action was his controversial letter to Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley. The document presented a laundry list of special privileges he sought for the players quarantined in advance of the Australian Open. Those included fitness equipment in every room, food appropriate for “elite athletes,” and the use of homes with private tennis courts.

The letter was leaked, creating a furious backlash from Melbournians (and many others, globally), who had endured severe hardship during a lengthy lockdown and other pandemic-related difficulties. Some of Djokovic’s peers lit into him, accusing the World No. 1 of, among other things, being tone-deaf.

In response, Djokovic said that his “good intentions” were "misconstrued as selfish, difficult, ungrateful.” To his critics, it wasn’t about intent, but Djokovic’s sense of entitlement. Nick Kyrgios, in a one-word, early entry into the 2021 quote-of-the-year sweeps, called Djokovic a “tool.”

Rafael Nadal told ESPN Argentina: "Some need to make public everything they do to help others," he said. "Others do it in a more private way without having to publish or advertise everything we're doing. The calls we make to help the most disadvantaged players, some of us don't need to want to advertise on it.”

Kyrgios, who has assumed the role of ATP COVID cop, later toned down his reproval, telling  CNN: “He (Djokovic) is technically our LeBron James in the way he has to be setting an example for all tennis players. When he was doing some of the things he was doing during the global pandemic, it just wasn't the right time.”

That may be an accurate assessment, but it doesn’t diminish the fact that Djokovic has developed an identity as a pro-active, engaged member of his profession—the straw that stirs the drink.