Inside Team Djokovic: Love or hate him, Novak will be the greatest

The first rule of Team Djokovic is you do not talk about (what is being said and written about) Team Djokovic.

That is how the world’s most scrutinised athlete, let alone tennis player, Novak Djokovic, absorbs the never-ending headlines that track his every move.

In this past fortnight, he wore allegations of faking a hamstring injury; receiving illegal messages taped to a bottle containing a mystery concoction; disobeying an umpire to take a toilet break; and his father sympathising with Vladimir Putin supporters.

Novak Djokovic.Credit:Eddie Jim

Neither Rafael Nadal nor Roger Federer, the other two most significant men’s tennis players in this incomparable era, ever had to deal with anything like that, but it has become the norm for Djokovic.

Read this hit list by The Age after his semi-final demolition of Tommy Paul, the nine-time Australian Open champion could not help but laugh, before a quick shrug, then an explanation of his approach.

“It sounds like a cliche, but you really have to accept it. It’s much easier said than done,” Djokovic said.

“In my case, I feel like things are just kind of piling on, adding on somehow, for one reason or another. It’s not an ideal situation or circumstance to be in when you have to kind of deal with all these other outside factors that are not really necessary during such an important event.

“But it’s been part of my life. Unfortunately, the last few years more so. I just try to evolve from it. I try to become more resilient, stronger.”

The logic behind Djokovic’s team ban on talking about the relentless commentary on his career and life is for him to stay as “sane or serene as possible”.

At the same time, there is an understanding that some, or even most, stories will pierce the bubble, such as the firestorm surrounding what his father Srdjan did or did not do and say with Russian activists on Wednesday night.

There was also no chance he could miss the eruption of content and criticism around his unvaccinated status this time last year, when he arrived thinking he could play, only to be interrogated for hours, placed in a detention hotel, then eventually deported.

There was little sympathy for him from Melburnians still scarred from repeated lockdowns during the horror that was the COVID-19 pandemic. At least part of that owed to Djokovic being different, or “unusual”, as his former coach Boris Becker puts it. To be fair, most geniuses are.

He once told millions of Instagram followers that he knew people who “through energetical transformation, through the power of prayer, through the power of gratitude; they managed to turn the most toxic food, or maybe most polluted water, into the most healing water”.

You can imagine how that revelation went down. But that was far from the origin of Djokovic’s heightened scrutiny.

Djokovic, at 35, is about 12 months younger than Nadal and six years younger than Federer. The timing of his arrival on the ATP Tour, more specifically after his two great rivals, is a common theory behind why he was not embraced in the same way.

It is also only part of Djokovic’s story and how he regrettably ended up as the perceived ‘villain’ of the trio. Like his legendary peers, he was a junior prodigy with plenty of belief.

A teenage Djokovic once walked into the office of then-Adelaide International tournament directors Mark Woodforde and Peter Johnston, asking for a main draw wildcard “because I’m going to become No.1 in the world one day and I think this would help give me a start”.

That bold bid did not pay off, and there were other off-court challenges as well, as his long-time agent Edoardo Artaldi revealed in a rare interview seven years ago.

Novak Djokovic reacts in his semi-final match against Tommy Paul. Credit:Getty

“We have to be honest, and Nole is very realistic in this point: he comes from a poor country, from Serbia,” Artaldi told Sport360.

“Obviously, he can’t get support from a company from his country. Take an example like Roger. He’s the greatest player ever, but if you see he has Credit Suisse, Lindt, Jura – all Swiss companies. Rafa is connected with many Spanish companies. For [Djokovic], he didn’t have a country behind him.

“And, honestly, the image of Serbia worldwide was not, and still is not, so great because of the war. So, for him, it was not easy at the beginning because I think he has to show 10 times more than others how good he is, not just on court but outside the court, to have a company interested in him.”

Artaldi credits the “turning point” for Djokovic being his landmark deal with Uniqlo, a Japanese retail company that had only dabbled in tennis sponsorship before that.

It came about after he played at Indian Wells in 2011 with messages of support to Japan written on his knee tape, after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that caused major destruction and thousands of deaths.

That year was important for another reason, too: Djokovic ascended to world No.1 for the first time, and won three of the four grand slam titles on offer.

After claiming his only previous major championship at the 2008 Australian Open and never being out of the top four in between, this was his arrival as a legitimate threat to the Federer-Nadal stronghold.

American writer Ana Mitric, who speaks fluent Serbian and is writing a book on Djokovic, has closely studied the way the narrative around him and his career has evolved.

At some point, Djokovic transformed from a highly ranked but non-threatening jokester who did impersonations of his peers, to a world dominator who turned to a gluten-free diet mixed in with mindfulness, gratitude and breathing exercises.

“He doesn’t fit in a neat and tidy box [and] a lot of people want him to embrace the villain role, or the spoiler, or some role that is tied to his arrival on the scene after Federer and Nadal, in other words this ‘third wheel’,” Mitric told the Thirty Love podcast.

“Since there was already this set, existing narrative about this rivalry, and these two incredible players it was sort of like, ‘Well, where do we put this guy?’, like, ‘What’s his deal?’.

“If you remember back to his big-stage debut at the US Open in 2007, when he eventually played in the final against Federer – those were the joker days, the impersonation days, the clowning around days. Slowly but surely that faded away, and this other thing happened – this other person arrived on stage.”

Mitric told The Age the language barrier, at the heart of the reporting of his father’s controversy this week, was another factor that must be considered. Djokovic’s so-called robotic, less-aesthetically pleasing playing style, especially compared to Federer, is another.

But Mitric also has a theory less-commonly part of the debate around Djokovic’s reputation.

It revolves around the fourth ‘Beatle’, Andy Murray, and the British media, who carry a significant voice in the tennis world based mostly on hosting the most illustrious grand slam, Wimbledon, rather than a wealth of playing talent.

Djokovic and Murray were junior rivals born a week apart, so the Brits naturally honed in on them and, Mitric argues, performed a key role in the Serbian’s portrayal as the villain while shining a light on their hero.

“There was almost a resistance to him being cast as the leading man,” Mitric said.

That resistance went on so long that it became a narrative, something Australian doubles legend Paul McNamee, who is pro-Djokovic, said the 21-time grand slam winner had railed against for most of his career.

In the end, for any number of reasons – some his own doing – Djokovic will probably never be truly accepted, at least in the Western world.

But none of the distractions, disrespect or setbacks stopped him from forging a historic career that will almost certainly see him eventually anointed as the greatest.

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