COMMENT: Novak Djokovic right to take media to task, and it is to tennis’ shame that he must

Novak Djokovic has opened up about what he believes to be ‘unfair portrayal’ of him in the media, and it’s hard to disagree with him.

There are many recurring themes in modern tennis that are wonderful to an unprecedented level. The quality we watch, the characters we can embrace, and the weekly battles for history to name but a few.

Another far less palatable one has reared its head again this week, though – the objectivity of the media when it comes to covering the big three of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer.

A year ago, we watched in awe as Roger Federer produced the ‘Miracle of Melbourne’ to defeat Tennys Sandgren despite obvious injury. It was superb and was rightly hailed by all quarters.

This week, we watched Novak Djokovic do the same against Taylor Fritz, but it was met with an air of suspicion, accusation, and frustration instead.

Novak Djokovic white Australian Open

“Presumably there are millions of different reasons,” Djokovic told Tennis Majors of the disparity of narrative between the two and his comparative treatment from the media in general.

“Truthfully, I have mostly made peace with it. I cannot say that it doesn’t sometimes get to me – of course an injustice or an unfair portrayal by the media affects me.

“I am a human being, I have emotions and naturally I don’t enjoy it. I would sincerely like to have a good relationship with them, but it seems that this is not always possible.

“I do my best to focus on the positive things and the positive articles.

“Of course it hurts when baseless criticism is fired your way and when you’re treated differently, but in a way, that is the path I have chosen.

“I find fault with and call out people and groups that most likely want to maintain the status quo in which they can reap the benefits in various ways, and that is something that I stand against. That is that.”

There are two things we feel are important to stress here. Firstly, nothing here is directed critically at any fans who have expressed suspicion of Djokovic. Fans are fair game.

Due to the passions that Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal inspire in people, tennis is more partisan a sport than it ever has been before. Vilifying your favourite’s rival is just par for the course and, in truth, tennis is probably a better spectacle for it.

The second point though is more important, and that is that the media should not get that same free pass. The standards by which they express their views should be higher. They should, as an absolute minimum requirement, be fair.

There is going to be times when those standards are not met. We can tell you from very personal experience that when covering tennis in 2021, it is impossible not to draw criticism. It’s the nature of the beast.

Novak Djokovic celebrates Australian Open

Not a day goes by when we are not accused by someone of showing bias towards – or against, but more often than not both – one specific player. You can spend hours writing literally thousands of words extolling your love for one player, yet say something nice about a rival and those words seem to mean more.

So we acutely understand how difficult it is for tennis media to straddle that constantly changing line between their readership’s passions. Mistakes will be made, and that’s okay.

But, the fact is, when it comes to Djokovic, that line into unfairness is crossed too often. Much too often. And, even more importantly, only for Djokovic.

This Australian Open has seen that played out with exhausting familiarity. Somehow we have a situation where one of the big three has been accepted to be injured when no one saw him get injured and without him looking injured, while the one we saw injuring himself and watched very visibly struggling with injury is being opening suspected of faking.

And that, right there, is the problem. Both of them are injured, but one of them is being treated fairly, and the other is not.

There was a bit of a subconscious admission of it from Guardian and ESPN journalist Simon Cambers following Djokovic’s refusal to divulge details on his injury after his win over Milos Raonic.

“Obviously players can say as little or as much about an injury as they like but journalistically,” he tweeted.

“What is frustrating in Novak’s case is that he was the one who mentioned “muscle tear” after the Fritz match. Now he says he doesn’t want to talk about it.

“Not saying anything leads to headlines like; Djokovic refuses to discuss injury concerns” etc etc which rankles his camp, his fans further.”

The standout question from that is why must it lead to headlines like that? We know he has an abdomen problem, just like we knew Nadal had a lower back problem. I don’t remember anyone in the media demanding scan results and specifics from Nadal under threat of knowingly antagonistic headlines.

The comparisons of Federer’s achievement at the Australian Open against Sandgren in 2020 with Djokovic’s against Taylor Fritz certainly shine a very revealing light on the media.

The achievement was the same. Both refused to succumb to injury in a match, both refused to quit, and both found a way to win. If you want to analyse it further, you can point out that Federer beat the world number 100 and had the support of a crowd, while Djokovic beat a seeded player with first an unkind crowd and then no crowd at all, but both were incredible achievements.

Novak Djokovic Australian Open Green

And yet, yes, even when applying the bare minimum of objectivity, it is impossible to conclude that they both received a fair degree of recognition. One got fanfare and credited with miracles, the other got openly suspected of faking.

Accused, incidentally, by people wholly unwilling to explain why Djokovic would choose to fake an injury and lose two sets of Grand Slam tennis, presumably just for effect.

Of course, tennis will inspire opinions and passions. It’s why we love it. But the media should not be affording themselves that luxury.

It is not their place to try to influence the narrative of play to the galley. They are not there to be promoters and propagandists for their favourites, and frankly, this era of unprecedented quality in men’s tennis deserves better.

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