I’ve never been a fan of Novak Djokovic. I always found it a bit strange to be fans of tennis players. Unlike other sports, you aren’t supporting a team that represents a city, state or country but rather just an individual, whose nationality isn’t of much consequence to his or her fans.
Nevertheless, growing up in the age of the Big Three of tennis, Djokovic was the one whose loss least affected me. The first tennis match I ever remember watching was of Rafael Nadal’s, then a 19-year-old on the way to winning his first French Open title. So I will always harbour a special connection with Nadal and will want him to win whenever or whoever he plays. And then the universally loved Roger Federer made it so easy to cheer for him, with his greatness, his consistency, his humility. Federer and Nadal’s on-court rivalry is the stuff of legend. And their off-court camaraderie and friendship makes it even sweeter. They were the Big Two. They were both impossible to not root for.
But Djokovic is another breed entirely. I could never fully get behind him even when he was the underdog against these legends in the making. His early years coincided with Federer’s first reign at the top and Nadal’s rapid ascent that supplanted Federer, after arguably the greatest tennis match of all time – the 2008 Wimbledon final. It was his seemingly frail body, the withdrawals, the retired hurts. But then he levelled up and had a break-through season in 2011 where he was unstoppable. He stunned the world. He won nearly everything there was to win and dominated everyone in the process. He became World No. 1. But I still wasn’t a Djokovic fan.
Then his rivalry with Nadal started to heat up as they faced each other more regularly. Each meeting a bigger occasion than the last. Each match more epic than the last. But of course I was pulling for Nadal. Both pushed each other to the maximum. Both kept trading titles. Beating each other. Federer was struggling with injuries so his absence meant more opportunities for these two. The best of which was the culmination of the 2012 Australian Open, a ridiculous final which took nearly six hours to complete. Djokovic was attaining greatness, commanding respect, and demanding attention. The Big Two was now the Big Three.
I have even seen him play in person. Twice I went to the Indian Wells Masters tournament and twice I saw a whole day of tennis from afternoon to midnight. I saw Djokovic practice and very nearly got an autograph. Then I saw him play a second round match in which he cruised to victory without breaking a sweat. Djokovic went on to have another historical season in 2015-16 when at one point he completed the Nole Slam and was the reigning champion of all four major tournaments at the same time. I was continually impressed and befuddled at his achievements, but I still can’t say I was a fan.
Last year was a misstep for Novak. He won the Australian Open again – big deal, they might as well rename it the Djokovic Open – and was on track to win at least a couple more majors. But then COVID happened. And amidst the pandemic he misguidedly attempted to organise a series of charity exhibition games with little to no social distancing or any precautions against the virus. The players involved, coaches, and family members tested positive. He himself tested positive. He was criticised vehemently, and rightfully so. If there was ever a time to become his fan, now was not it.
Add to that public censure the events of last year’s US Open. Hitting a line judge in the throat with a ball, after the point was over. Out of frustration. Out of lack of care? Accidental? Regardless, the match ended right there. Defaulted. Disqualified. The new villain of men’s tennis. How can I be a fan of that?
On Sunday, Djokovic won the French Open. Two days ago, he was 5-0 down in the first set against four-time defending and 13-time overall champion Rafael Nadal aka. Mr. Roland Garros. On Sunday, he won the French Open. Two days ago, he went down a set to Nadal and then went on to play one of the most incredible sets of tennis ever witnessed in Paris. He won that set in a pulsating tiebreak. On Sunday, he won the French Open.
In two days, he beat a man who up till now had lost a total of two times in his French Open career and a fledgling 22 year old Greek attempting to win his first ever major tournament. In the two times Nadal has been defeated at the French Open, the man to beat him has gone on to lose in the final, probably because of the immense effort it must take to conquer the King of Clay here. But that didn’t matter to Djokovic.
Today, he was down two sets to none against Stefanos Tsitsipas. But his machine of a body refused to shut down. He had already done the impossible by beating Nadal, yet he had another herculean task in front of him.
In the 16 years since he has turned professional, Djokovic has seen all sorts of highs and lows and everything in between. He is a human wall that has withstood and overcome everything thrown at him on and off the court. Today, he won the French Open. Again. He is one major title behind both Roger and Rafa. Plus, he’s a year younger than Nadal.
I’m a fan of his biggest rivals for various reasons. Yet I still can’t say I’m a fan of Djokovic. But if he wasn’t playing, there wouldn’t be a reason to be a fan of anyone.