Novak Djokovic remains a highly divisive figure among fans, but while he may not be the hero tennis wants, is he the hero that tennis needs?
In 1999, with his mother rendered unconscious by a NATO bomb and tended to by his father, an 11-year-old Novak Djokovic searched for his two younger brothers.
“I was the big brother,” Djokovic recalled in his 2013 autobiography. "I'd been holding myself responsible for their safety ever since NATO forces started bombing my hometown.”
11-years-old. That is the world that forged Novak Djokovic and the mentality that has seen him able to establish himself as tennis' most unlikely, and possibly greatest, champion.
It is also something we should not allow ourselves to forget when it feels easy to unkindly judge him. It seems a remarkable thing to say about the player who, Roland Garros and other clay events featuring Rafael Nadal aside, enters every tournament he plays as the favourite, but Djokovic is also tennis’ greatest underdog.
When we say that Novak Djokovic is anti-establishment, and he is, we are not just talking about his involvement in tennis politics.
In many ways, the term ‘anti-establishment’ is a misleading one, because it implies there is something intrinsically wrong with ‘the establishment,’ like they are some kind of deliberately tyrannical organisation like the Galactic Empire to Djokovic’s Rebel Alliance. That’s not the case.
Everyone wants the best for tennis, but there is no requirement for everyone to agree with how that is achieved. Disagreement is fine.
But when it comes to Djokovic, because he is so anti-establishment, in terms of his influence in tennis he can be difficult for many to accept.
To many, the fact he is so different to the traditional norm makes him threatening. To others, it makes him refreshing and, frankly, necessary. After all, one person’s freedom-fighter is another person’s insurrectionist, right?
Either way, though, it is difficult to deny that Djokovic is one of the most divisive figures in tennis because he is one of the most unique.
But while there is no need to like Novak Djokovic, there is a responsibility to at least try to understand him – particularly if you are to commit to criticism of him.
Djokovic’s story is, without any doubt whatsoever, an incredibly inspiring one. If you were to see it played out in a movie, you’d likely be left questioning the realism of the tale.
Tennis is, after all, a sport of privilege. There is a reason why the top players have historically come from the wealthiest nations. A private tennis court is a hallmark of a luxury home. Tennis clubs are, and always have been, a hub of high society, and the sport has been a slave to those traditions since its inception.
There are signs of it everywhere, not least in the pineapple, a former icon of wealth and prosperity in European society, sitting atop the Wimbledon trophy.
It is not hard to see, then, that a player borne of poverty in a war-torn nation without any real tennis tradition, who first learned to play on inner-city concrete and dirt courts of an Eastern European capital does not fit into that tradition.
"My upbringing was in Serbia during several wars during the '90s, difficult time, embargo in our country where we had to wait in line for bread, milk, water, some basic things in life," he said.
“I’ve been so fortunate in my life to have parents that were very strong in midst of the war and hardship that we were living through during the 90s.
“And have their unconditional love and support to play the sport that wasn’t even a tradition in our family or in our country.
“It was very expensive sport, but somehow they managed to do it, to actually buy me racquets and I could have a coach and I could have conditions that were fair enough or good enough for me to grow up to be a professional tennis player.”
There does often seem to be a degree of annoyance from the media when the more they criticise Djokovic, the better he seems to become. But when actual bombs couldn’t break him, why would a few insults?
When you look at the world number one, he is not what you would traditionally associate with what a professional tennis player is expected to be. That’s not what annoys some people, though. What annoys those people is that he is absolutely unapologetic about it.
But while tennis’ traditions have their value, they can also hold the sport hostage. Whether you like Djokovic or not, the fact millions genuinely love him is inarguable evidence that there is not only a place for that in tennis, but indeed a thirst for it.
Whether or not you share his views on where tennis needs to be politically, injecting some anti-establishment balance into an overwhelmingly pro-establishment argument can never be a bad thing either.
Neither argument can solve the problems tennis faces in terms of modernizing and equality and diversity alone.
The answer lies somewhere in the middle, and frankly we are not going to get to that without Novak Djokovic. Trying to say tennis already has all the answers without the unique insight that Djokovic has to offer encapsulates the high value of his input.
Yes, Djokovic is different to the norm in tennis. Yes he is outspoken and, if he upsets anyone when he offers an non-traditionalist perspective, unapologetic. Yes, he is more antagonistic and abrasive on a tennis court at times than many old-school fans want. That is inarguable.
But he has also made tennis accessible to kids who might not have thought it possible before him, and fans who might not have been able to relate to tennis without him.
For those reasons, while he probably isn’t the hero tennis wants right now, he is almost certainly the hero tennis needs.
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