RIATH AL-SAMARRAI: Novak Djokovic has earned respect but can’t win love

new balance


Love moves in mysterious ways and is there a bigger mystery in sport than that of how love always finds a way past Novak Djokovic? 

It lobs over his head, to his sides, through his strings, spinning and kicking and dipping and swerving. A man who can catch anything with his racket just can’t catch a heart.

And what a strange phenomenon that is, because love is all around in tennis. In every game and every set, you start with love. But Djokovic rarely finishes with it – too good to have it on his side of the scoreboard, and seemingly too unlovable to have much of it from a crowd, especially those that gather around Centre Court. Love is something he gives there; it isn’t what he takes.

What he has is respect and that is different, of course. Maybe he has more respect than anyone in the story of ball games, and so he should, going by the basis that respect can be earned. And who has earned more than Djokovic? 

From 2008, when he won his first Australian Open, until now, 15 years on, he has earned 23 Slams.

Which brings us to this weekend and the possibility of more earning. Historical earning. If he beats Carlos Alcaraz in that battle of the ages, he will equal Roger Federer’s record of eight Wimbledon titles, and Federer is relevant in this space, for reasons of love that we will come back to.

There may be no greater mystery than how love always finds a way past Novak Djokovic

There may be no greater mystery than how love always finds a way past Novak Djokovic

He is respected but for a man who can catch anything with a racket, he can't catch a heart

He is respected but for a man who can catch anything with a racket, he can’t catch a heart

The Serbian star will play Wimbledon's new hero Carlos Alcaraz for the SW19 crown on Sunday

The Serbian star will play Wimbledon’s new hero Carlos Alcaraz for the SW19 crown on Sunday 

He would tie Margaret Court on 24, too, because he has already passed the point where his trophies are measured only against men. That is how great he is, and when we stick to the narrower parameters of greatness, there is no debate: he is the most effective male tennis player we have known and by the end of the US Open in September, he will probably be the most effective of anyone. 

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He has done so in an era more loaded with greatness than any other, so if you don’t respect that, you don’t respect sport.

But what about love? Because love doesn’t sit in a balanced equation with numbers of Slams and winning ratios against all comers, up to and including Federer or Rafael Nadal. 

He was better than both of them at this game – he showed it in the matches they contested in the overlaps of their peak periods. But they were better loved. By far. Then and now, even factoring for the zealotry of some of his social media following.

You could feel it on the first Tuesday of these Championships, when Federer was paraded in the Royal Box. He had a bigger cheer and ovation in his cream suit than anything Djokovic had on Centre Court all fortnight. Certainly more than he had during his semi-final against Jannik Sinner on Friday, which was an odd day indeed.

More than a few of that crowd jeered him during the match, particularly after he took exception to a point penalty for grunting. That is a difference between love and respect – this place doesn’t tend to boo the people they love. It might happen on occasion, because Nadal received a little heat for taking an eternity between points against Nick Kyrgios a few years back. 

But Djokovic? It’s a different level. He was booed against Cam Norrie here in 2022 and against Jordon Thompson this year, as he was against Alejandro Davidovich Fokina and Alcaraz at Roland Garros. Pockets of the disgruntled, mainly, not the whole, but they were big pockets for the biggest earner.

Djokovic jokingly wiped away tears during his Wimbledon semi-final win over Jannik Sinner

Djokovic jokingly wiped away tears during his Wimbledon semi-final win over Jannik Sinner

By the end of the match, it seemed a part of the superstar had given up on his chase for love

By the end of the match, it seemed a part of the superstar had given up on his chase for love

And so there is a pattern and it is a paradox, because, for whatever reason, quality isn’t enough for Djokovic. In that match with Sinner, and any he plays, he shows why he is a sporting wonder. He is far more than a wall of retrieval – he hits some of the most magnificent shots, the kind even Federer couldn’t play, like at 5-3 up in the second on Friday, when he chased a wide ball, dropped into the splits and hit a backhand winner through the tiniest of windows up the line. At 36. A remarkable athlete.

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By the end of it all, it seemed a part of him gave up on the chase for love. He was cupping his ear and instructing the crowd to dry their weeping eyes. You don’t like me, I don’t care. But he does.

For years we have seen Djokovic crying out for something more than respect in this grand place. He eats the grass, he blows kisses, he bows, he waves, he plays amazing tennis year after year. He says kind things in better English than we speak. Better German, French and Italian, as well. But on Friday, a part of him seemed to accept he will never quite get what he wants. Respect, yes, but not love.

Because respect can come from cold numbers and graphs. Love is about feeling and what do you feel when you watch Djokovic play? I’ve written in this page before about the how of tennis rather than the how many and he doesn’t have the same how factor as Federer. Federer’s tennis was infused with art. Nadal’s not so much, but they loved him anyway. He caused those feelings with his force of will, the human dimension of how he played.

Maybe Djokovic’s only deficiency in this area is that he isn’t Federer or Nadal and it is about his otherness. Maybe, after all those wonderful matches between Federer and Nadal, it felt like three was a crowd. Maybe he beat Andy Murray in too many finals. Maybe it is about rooting for the underdog and anyone who plays Djokovic is the underdog. Maybe it is all a bit of pantomime. Maybe it is about the vaccines and what he says about purifying polluted water with good thoughts. Maybe it is unfair to hold those things against him, but love is a feeling and love can be irrational.

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Djokovic is a riddle and one we can all respect. I can even respect his stance on vaccination – I didn’t agree with it and I certainly didn’t love it, but I could respect that he stood by his principles at a cost to his sporting career. I can respect a lot about him, from the challenges of his early life in a war zone, to his resilience to succeed in professional sport, and from there to his utter domination of tennis.

If he beats Alcaraz, we will all respect him even more. And he will have earned it, as he always does. But love? That’s a more complicated business, even in tennis.

Roger Federer had a bigger cheer and ovation in his cream suit than Djokovic at Wimbledon

Roger Federer had a bigger cheer and ovation in his cream suit than Djokovic at Wimbledon

If he beats Alcaraz, tennis fans will respect Djokovic even more - though love is complicated

If he beats Alcaraz, tennis fans will respect Djokovic even more – though love is complicated

The tail is wagging the dog… 

Next weekend looks marvellous – the fourth Ashes Test and The Open. A real treat. But it is something approaching a nonsense that they are clashing. 

It isn’t the first time they have run into each other, because it also happened in 2001, 2009, 2013 and 2015, and on each occasion you might have wondered if there is some quirk of scheduling that could spare us from having to choose. 

In this particular year it is even more frustrating, and the options even more limited, because the Ashes were crunched into a six-week window so that The Hundred could have pride of place during the school holidays. It’s the one where they dress like crisp packets. 

Has there been a more absurd case in sport of the tail wagging the dog?

Alli’s tale marks a great success 

Even if Dele Alli hadn’t shared his story this week, how could his career have ever been considered a failure? 

Same goes for anyone who reaches the Premier League after the Hunger Games existence of a football academy. 

That Alli was able to do so after the upbringing he had makes his tale one of even greater success.

Even if Dele Alli hadn't shared his story, how could his career have been considered a failure?

Even if Dele Alli hadn’t shared his story, how could his career have been considered a failure?

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