It’s a truth often ignored that in tennis our great champions are frequently unbeloved in their pomp, when their play is at its finest and winning seems to come easy the crowds in the stands and audiences at home normally root for their opponent. Natural sympathy for the underdog and the constant yearning for something new partly explain this predisposition, but other less understandable factors can come into play. Roger Federer has been the great exception to this rule, even when he dominated the tennis landscape like no one before for such a sustained period from 2004-7 the crowd was usually on his side. Serena Williams had to nearly die from a pulmonary embolism before the majority of tennis fans finally began to embrace her, respect for her astonishing late career achievements (by far the greatest over-30 player the modern game has seen) diminishing memories of her more controversial career moments. Rafael Nadal has never really been a crowd favourite at Roland Garros, despite winning the tournament a record 9 times.
Novak Djokovic has suffered more than most great champions from this phenomenon, probably because in 2011 he started beating two of the most popular players to ever live in Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Aside from his lone first major at the 2008 Australian Open Djokovic spent the years 2006-2010 as an up and coming but nearly man, for a while in 2009 his serve abandoned him and it looked possible he might never be in the grand slam winners club again. Then after beginning to become a force again in late 2010 be dominated 2011, not even losing a match until the French Open in June, and winning three majors overall, just as both Federer and Nadal had done before him. That was always part of Djokovic’s problem connecting with crowds, almost everything he achieved had already been done before in recent memory, and with two great champions still playing the game, who really had time for a third to replace them? Another problem was perhaps his game, in many ways he is the most complete player to ever pick up a racquet, but to some eyes he lacked the distinctive styles of Federer and Nadal. He also underwent something of an on court personality change, gone was the exuberant and playful Djokovic of his early years on tour, now a Zen gluten free more serious character emerged, a natural maturing process, but one that some fans found difficult to adjust to.
The sense of Djokovic as an underappreciated champion has only grown with the passing years, he remained number one for much of the period 2011-late 2016, and won a major every year in that period, but crowds have not seemed to warm to him. Now he has started to lose more frequently it may be that attitudes begin to change. They should, because he has been an exemplary champion and ambassador for the sport. Tennis news headlines after his loss today screamed about an upset up there with the greatest of all time. Yet, really the astonishing thing is that he had not had more similar losses in the last 6 years, he was a master of consistency. It has been a strange six months for Djokovic since June last year when he was the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four majors at once. He’s suffered disappointing early losses at Wimbledon and the Olympics, but also reached the US Open and World Tour Finals Finals. Just ten days ago he defeated new World No.1 Andy Murray in a high quality encounter that led most commentators to announce he was back on his A game.
Where does he go from here? Djokovic is 29, an age at which Sampras, Nadal and Federer all saw a steep decline in their winning rate, and what is he aiming for? Federer’s record haul of 17 majors still seems quite distant, as do many of his other records, so what is Djokovic playing for? He has stated in recent press interviews that records and majors are not the most important things in his life now, and even if he matches or surpasses Federer’s records he may feel he will never be regarded as the greater player, he’s certainly unlikely to be the more appreciated champion. If the last few months do mark the end of Djokovic as the dominant player on tour his era deserves to be as respected as the golden age of Federer and Nadal.