Novak Djokovic never got to strike a ball in anger in Australia, was never offered the chance to create Grand Slam history, yet still he flew back into Belgrade on Monday morning to a hero’s reception from his adoring public.
Tears had been shed throughout Serbia at a nation’s perceived mistreatment of their idol, a player who stood on the verge of tennis immortality only to be ingloriously kicked out of that country because of his Covid vaccination status.
But while the Serbs protested about the injustice of it all, the rest of the world took a generally far more sanguine view, because Djokovic simply doesn’t arouse the same emotions outside of his homeland as other players – two in particular.
Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are, for now, still locked together on 20 Grand Slam titles, the three greatest players of the modern era, maybe any era. But while they are inseparable in terms of major wins, when it comes to a popularity contest, the current world No.1 is a massive outsider.
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Djokovic has long been a polarising figure in tennis. Despite his athleticism, his will to win, his astonishing record, his fan base is far narrower than those of the much-loved Federer and Nadal.
And it’s his success, paradoxically, that partly explains why he struggles to nurture such warmth from the general tennis public. He’s dared to challenge the “Fedal”, the duopoly created by the sport’s other two more engaging superstars, and that has quite simply got people’s backs up.
There have been incidents, too, of course, several blown out of proportion, others mythical, many which should have been long forgotten, but added together they represent more reasons to dislike the 34-year-old.
The many broken rackets, the disqualification from the US Open for bad-temperedly striking a line judge (accidentally, it has to be said), his organisation of an exhibition tour with crowds and no social distancing in the early, dark days of the pandemic. People even find his ‘crowd-love’ celebrations cringeworthy.
Aussie Expulsion Just a Minor Hiccup
Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t, Djokovic is among friends now, back in Serbia and doubtless with an eye on grand slam No.21 at Roland Garros in Paris in the spring – if the rules surrounding vaccinations change in time to allow him entry. Watch this space.
Whatever happens, and whatever ‘Fedal’ fans might say, Djokovic is deserving of all the plaudits going for a simply astonishing career.
Few would have foreseen such feats when the then 19-year-old won the Dutch Open in 2006 without dropping a set. Sixteen years later and, as well as the 20 Grand Slams, he boasts another 86 career titles, has been top of the world rankings for a record 356 weeks and counting. Djokovic also claimed Davis Cup glory back in 2010 and stands less than a dozen good performances away from becoming the first man in the Open era to win 1,000 singles matches.
Ruthlessly single-minded, be sure that being expelled from Australia, from being denied the opportunity over the next few days to carve his name into tennis’ history books, will only make him more hungry.