At two sets and a break down, 16-time grand slam champion Novak Djokovic retired through injury in his fourth round match against Stanislas Wawrinka at the US Open this week.
He was immediately greeted by a chorus of boos from the Flushing Meadows crowd as they realised what was happening and most damning of all, their reaction wasn’t all that surprising.
At 6-4 7-5 2-0, after serving up a double fault, the Serbian retired from the match with a shoulder problem that was hampering him. Had Roger Federer or Rafa Nadal done the same, preventing further pain and avoiding making the injury worse, it’s unlikely they would have suffered the same fate.
When Andy Murray almost retired at the Australian Open in tears earlier this year, he received a standing ovation.
Fans can handle Nadal’s obsessive bottle arranging and fidgeting, but have issues with Djokovic’s grass-nibbling. Djokovic conducts himself professionally, on and off the court, so why don’t fans love him?
Most of the criticisms seem vague, at best. He’s too robotic, everything is a bit forced, he comes across as fake. His on court impressions of other players on the tour seem to fall somewhere between mild entertainment and extreme annoyance.
Ultimately, it seems the worst thing that he’s done is not be Federer or Nadal. And not only is he not them, he gets in the way of them. In what is arguably the greatest rivalry across all sport over the last 20 years, Djokovic came along, beat them both with consummate efficiency and denied fans the matchup that they continually long for.
According to Brandwatch, it’s not just fans that seem to have an issue with Djokovic, it’s brands too. Despite winning three slams last year, the Serb’s total earnings amounted to $23.5 million, less than a third of the $77.2 million that Federer earned over the same time. Nadal also earned more ($41.4 million) and, somewhat surprisingly, so did Kei Nishikori, with $34.6 million.
Earlier this year, speaking on the No Challenges Remaining podcast, Nick Kyrgios said of Djokovic: “I just feel like he has a sick obsession with wanting to be liked.
"Like he wants to be like Roger (Federer). I just can't stand him. This whole celebration thing he does after matches, it's so cringeworthy.
"No matter how many grand slams he wins, he will never be the greatest for me simply because I've played him twice and, I'm sorry, but if you can't beat me, you're not the greatest of all time.”
While the Aussie may not be the barometer all all that’s good on the court and Djokovic can probably live with not being liked by Kyrgios, he’s well aware that fans aren’t enamoured by him.
The US Open crowd boos. Not at all surprising. But got to defend them on this. Djokovic said he was fine when he came on to the court and now when Stan is dominating he just retired almost before getting a straight sets drubbing? This is not fair to Wawrinka. #USOpen— Karthik Balaji (@kbee90) September 2, 2019
In this year’s Wimbledon final – a match in which Djokovic was outplayed in every conceivable way by Federer and yet still managed to win – the crowd were unsurprisingly with the Swiss. After the win Djokovic even talked about pretending the chants for his opponent were actually for him.
He said: “If you have the majority of the crowd on your side, it helps, it gives you motivation, it gives you strength, it gives you energy. When you don’t, then you have to find it within."
"I like to transmute it in a way. So 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.
In the semi-final a couple of days before he won the longest rally in Wimbledon history, 45 strokes, and had to point to his ear afterwards to ask for more applause. To fans, who can be fickle at the best of times, players should earn applause, not ask for it. Djokovic would quite rightly argue that he’s done plenty to earn it.
In the crowd he gets less love, and online he gets less love, too. According to Brandwatch, a study conducted from June 2018 and February 2019, Djokovic had less total mentions across social media than his rivals, as well as more negative comments than them – 24% of all Djokovic’s mentions were negative.
It’s possible that crowds could warm to him in time. He’ll almost certainly outlast Nadal and Federer, and has already done so with Murray, whose own negative body language – especially when young – has never seemed to irk tennis fans in the way Djokovic’s does.
Without having to compete with Federer’s majestic elegance, or Rafa’s triceps and topspin, fans may finally realise what a good player he actually is.
The more likely outcome, however, is that he’ll overtake Federer’s Grand Slam total and garner even greater hate, only multiplied by Roger himself being incredibly gracious about the achievement, and the whole cycle repeats all over again.
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