Novak Djokovic has to be the most underappreciated great athlete on Earth, and Earth should do better. Earth can be so amiss, maybe even more than other planets.
Djokovic just whooshed into the U.S. Open’s fourth round Friday night, yet it came with familiar reminders that the tenor of a Djokovic match simply differs from the tenor of a match involving Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. Djokovic had a heckler at the practice court. He had hecklers during the match, with his double faults sending them to the verge of delirium.
Federer hecklers probably have turned up here and there through the years, but nobody can remember any of them, possibly because they got hauled off to prison.
Djokovic, the No. 1 player in the world, led 6-3, 6-4, 3-2 on Friday night when his double fault at 30-all doled a precious break point to that commendable Northern Virginian Denis Kudla. The noise rose. The anticipation built. It sounded plenty normal, with encouragement doled out to a persevering underdog ranked 111th.
Yet that normal sound does not build during Federer matches. At the matches of Federer, Earth’s favorite player, fans view the yeoman scrapper on the other side of the net as an inconvenience to be flicked aside so that the gorgeousness of Federer’s game can persist. The underdog’s turns of wonder generate an appreciation more hushed. That’s because they’re always threats as, at another level, is Djokovic.
How curious, the way Earth seemed to respond to the smashing 2019 Wimbledon men’s singles final, viewing a Djokovic victory of remarkable wherewithal through a poor-Roger lens, after a match with one overarching statistic. Unforced errors in three tiebreakers: Federer 11, Djokovic 0. Much angst centered on how Federer missed out on two match points in the 8-7 game. Little or none centered on how Djokovic already had broken serve for 4-2 and reached the cusp yet then wobbled.
Of course, much of this dynamic owes to the sport’s 16-year trajectory in this stunning men’s era. By the time Djokovic finally elbowed his way into the Big Three, Earth long since had plunged deeply into love with the other two, both of them utterly non-villainous.
Federer brought along aspects of life the world has craved since its beginnings: beauty and grace. Going to see him has always been every bit the parallel of going to the Louvre. He improved the world by pleasing and dazzling its eyes, and he lavished the sport with thoughtful media gatherings in three languages. It makes the love for him 100 percent understandable even if people in love often can’t think clearly.
Nadal arrived as a paragon of at least four other qualities justly adored: effort, decency, topspin and muscles. He loses shockingly at Roland Garros (2009) and gives every volunteer a thank-you hug on the way out. He plucks a child from the bumptious autograph scrum at the U.S. Open (2019), and nobody feels surprised anymore.
Anybody good and bold enough to barge lastingly into this sweet two-man stranglehold should have merited a damned parade for that alone. It’s easy to forget that Djokovic, with 15 of his 16 Grand Slam titles crammed into this decade, once resided for so long at No. 3 that he could have had a mortgage, a fence and a yard full of pets. He stayed almost the entire second half of 2007, the entirety of 2008, the first third of 2009 and the nine more months from October 2009 to June 2010 before he ever squeezed his way into No. 2.
By then, the love for Federer and Nadal had flowered, never a calamity, and Djokovic became both Most Likely To Be Heckled and Least Likely To Be Cheered, never a calamity but rather a nuisance. He has handled it with bouts of spats sprinkled amid years of equanimity. He even notched an inventive wrinkle for those disfavored by sports audiences when he said, at Wimbledon, “I look to transmutate [sic] it in a way: When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger,’ I hear ‘Novak.’ It sounds silly, but it is like that. I try to convince myself that it’s like that.”
His skills at navigating his no-win situation went on display again Friday night. After going to the fence to the practice-court heckler pre-match and saying, “I’ll come find you,” he cracked later that he meant, “To have a drink. I liked the guy. I’m going to buy him a drink.” As to what the heckler said, Djokovic said, “We’ll keep it between us. But he definitely helped me. He doesn’t even know, but he did help me.”
As to the dudes in the stands who relished his double fault and probably relished less his ensuing, astounding cross-court backhand winner, he said: “Night sessions, New York, crowd gets into it. A couple guys that had a couple of drinks more than I guess they were supposed to. But it was all good after.”
As the big standings stand at 20 Grand Slams for Federer, 18 for Nadal and 16 for Djokovic, it might be worthwhile to take a brief tour of the past. It’s bloody hard to save two match points three different times in Grand Slams against Federer. It’s bloody hard to beat Nadal in an Australian Open final (2012) of almost six hours. It’s bloody hard to lose a match point in the fourth set of a Wimbledon final against Federer (2014) and regather oneself to win the fifth, or win a U.S. Open final (2015) against an obnoxious pro-Federer crowd. It’s clearly just shy of impossible among male humans to win four Grand Slams in a row (2015-16), seeing as how nobody had done it since Rod Laver in 1969.
It’s bloody hard to go from losing a shaky French Open quarterfinal against Marco Cecchinato (2018) to out-wrestling Nadal, 10-8, in a Wimbledon semifinal. It’s bloody hard to play three tiebreakers with zero unforced errors in a Wimbledon final (2019) Djokovic found to be the “mentally most demanding match I was ever part of.” It’s remarkable to be able to access a level that can submit Nadal to a 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 wreckage in an Australian Open final (2019).
To all of that, factor in the very idea of hailing from a country at war during your childhood, such as Serbia, and the volumes of complications both obvious and hidden that must have presented.
Good grief, Earth. Come on.