He is on course to become the greatest tennis player of all-time, yet Novak Djokovic still appears to be fighting a global popularity battle.
Despite a traumatic 2022 which saw Djokovic deported from Australia and banned from a series of North American tournaments, he has proved that the top is where he will remain, even more so following a thrilling win at the ATP Finals in Turin and being well on track to win a tenth Australian Open title in Melbourne this week.
From a sporting perspective, Djokovic is peerless, and yet he remains a divisive figure for a variety of reasons.
NOVAK’S BAD TIMING
At first, Djokovic was a welcome challenger to the ‘Big Two;’ pushing hard to beat Federer and Nadal all the way, but still coming out second best.
Yet the tide of popular opinion turned against the Serb when he started beating both players in the game’s biggest titles.
To devotees of Federer and Nadal, Djokovic was the menace ruining their dream, but the reality was, there were not many tennis fans left to support a third giant at the top of the game.
That balance is now changing, with Djokovic’s remarkable success ensuring he has built up a vast army of supporters that includes 12 million followers on Instagram.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 11, 2023
On too many occasions, Djokovic has been treated with disdain by tennis audiences, with that being especially evident while playing Federer and Nadal, as recalled by former British No.1 Annabel Croft.
“I remember being at the US Open in 2015 when Djokovic was playing Federer, the entire crowd seemed to be against him,” Croft told Tennis365.
“There was silence when he hit a winner and cheers when he missed, the courage he showed to win that match was remarkable.
“I was court-side and couldn’t believe that there were 20,000 people baying for his blood and hoping he would lose. It was cruel in many ways.
“It was like watching a gladiator out there getting torn to shreds by the crowd. It sends shivers down my spine recalling what it felt like and he didn’t flinch. He was so well prepared emotionally to deal with that, it was so impressive.”
Djokovic had similar experiences at the ATP Final in London and during Wimbledon Finals against Federer, and local favourite Andy Murray.
While you would not expect a champion of such esteemed gravitas to be faced with cheers when he missed a shot, Djokovic has found a way to overcome the animosity.
More often than not, he has defied the jeers to get his hands on the trophy after the final shot is played.
DOES POPULARITY MATTER?
Djokovic has a vast network of supporters around the world and at times, their passion to defend their hero backfires.
Any suggestion that Federer and Nadal are more popular than Djokovic is greeted with animosity on social media platforms, with journalists like Ben Rothenburg among those targeted by the fans who call themselves #NoleFam (a reference to Djokovic’s nickname.)
While Federer will always hold a special place in the hearts of tennis fans and Nadal having a story that ensured he secured his place in the folklore of the sport long ago, there is room for Djokovic to take his own place in this story.
Federer and Nadal fans will never warm to Djokovic, but tennis is a sport with a vast supporter base around the world, so Novak’s devotees need not concern themselves with criticism from those whose position cannot be changed.
IS DJOKOVIC THE GREATEST?
Not yet, but he almost certainly will be if the greatest is judged only in terms of numbers.
Djokovic has the record for most weeks at No.1 in the world, he is the only player in history to appear in six finals at each of the Grand Slam events and he has a winning record in matches against both Federer and Nadal.
Novak will need to overrule Nadal at the top of the list of players who have won the most major titles and he could take a step towards that this Sunday if he wins a tenth Australian Open.
With Federer retired and Nadal ailing with injuries, the door appears to be open for Djokovic to cement his status as the best player of all-time over the next few years.
“If you are talking about impact and popularity, it is a one-horse race, there is no doubt that Federer is the most popular player that has ever played our sport,” said former British No.1 Tim Henman.
“There are different conversations to be had around the greatest player and if it comes down to numbers, Djokovic will win.”