by Luke Wakeling
When Novak Djokovic lifted the Australian Open in 2011 to gain his first Grand Slam, Federer was already cemented in history with 16; Nadal was fast approaching with nine to his name. Fast forward to 2020 and Djokovic has acquired 17 Grand Slams after beating Dominic Thiem 6-4 4-6 2-6 6-3 6-4 to extend his record at Melbourne Park to eight Australian Open titles.
Many predict he will surpass Nadal’s 19 and eventually Federer’s record of 20 Grand Slams, with age still very much on his side. Yet, the Serbian is nowhere near as popular as his two greatest rivals. Indeed, he often has to battle two opponents in his matches– the second being the crowd.
The current world number one has expressed his frustrations at this, most noticeably in the 2019 Wimbledon final where the cheers for Federer’s loss were louder than Djokovic’s win. Even against Thiem, in a tournament which should be Djokovic’s ‘home’ ground, the crowd were firmly on the Austrian’s side. One would think Djokovic, a charismatic off-court interviewee who grew up in war-struck Belgrade, should have by now gained the hearts of tennis fans across the world.
What are the reasons for his seemingly under-appreciated position in the sporting world?
Firstly, a look at his playing style in comparison to his rivals would give some clues. Federer is widely considered to be the most graceful player in history, with a perfect forehand, elegant one-handed backhand and smooth but brutal serve. His movement is effortless, the way he glides around the court and approaches the net with ease.
Nadal, on the other hand, is ferocious. Fans remember him in his sweat-drenched tank top in 2008, after one of the greatest finals of all time to beat Federer at Wimbledon in nearly five hours. His ‘lasso’ top spin heavy forehand is one of the most iconic tennis shots in history; the effort he puts into each match and fierce competitiveness has earned him many admirers.
Then we come to Djokovic. His playing style is perfect, but not iconic. The issue is, although there are no weaknesses in his game, there are also no apparent strengths either, at least on first viewings. The Serbian plays tennis how one should play tennis, without doing anything particularly pretty or exciting. A winner, not an entertainer.
This is largely the consensus on Djokovic’s game which is not particularly fair. His returning game is the best in history and his elasticity is extraordinary– the way Djokovic stretches to reach seemingly unreturnable shots has as much right to be iconic as Nadal’s.
Similar to their playing styles, Federer and Nadal’s personal styles are distinct in comparison to the Serbian’s. They both have their own popular brands and clothing lines; Federer is closely affiliated with Wilson, Rolex and Uniqlo and Nadal with Babolat, KIA Motors and Nike.
The Swiss is a gentleman of the sport, his classy style reflecting his play whereas Nadal is associated with professionalism, athleticism and functionality. Novak hasn’t really marketed his own image as successfully.
Another reason is that Djokovic could suffer from his own success. He has beaten the other three of the ‘Big Four’ more than any other player, with a 29-26 record against Nadal and 27-23 record against Federer. The fact is, any player that steps onto the court against Djokovic is an underdog.
When people describe Djokovic, many would compare him to a robot. He is just ‘too perfect’. This would be a fair accusation; except he isn’t perfect. In 2017 and 2018 many thought Djokovic would not compete at the top level again, not beating a top 20 player in 20 months after various injuries. The five-set thriller for his most recent Australian open title against Thiem is a microcosm of his career.
This was not an easy match for Djokovic. There were times where he looked lost, lacking direction and vigour against a more powerful young opponent. He was two sets to one down after Thiem had won six out of seven games. Yet he still pulled through, showing grit, determination and admirable mental strength. It is time the world woke up to Djokovic’s greatness.