COMMENT: Obsessively vilifying Novak Djokovic is the fashion trend tennis can do without

Novak Djokovic is a player who many fans love to hate – and the media seem far too happy to pander to it.

There is no question that tennis is changing. Even if you take the upheavals of 2020 out of the picture, the tennis landscape feels like it is shifting beneath out feet.

There are richly talented younger players emerging and, although Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic very much remain the men to beat, there are being challenged more than ever before.

It’s the same on the women’s side of things, with Iga Swiatek blazing a Roland Garros trial and Naomi Osaka bringing a political conscience to the forefront of the sport once again.

Meanwhile, Roger Federer and Serena Williams are finally fading away, even if their influence will endure.

On the technical side of things, certain trends are emerging. The driven one-handed backhand is very much in-vogue, and Lorenzo Musetti is likely to make it even more fashionable. Racket and string technology is also always evolving, making serve-volleyers even rarer than ever while power-hitting baseliners dominate the rankings.

Some things never change, though, and one of them is something that actually should: The vilifying of Novak Djokovic.

Novak Djokovic ATP Finals

I am going to start this with a disclaimer. I get that Djokovic is not to everyone’s tastes. That’s perfectly fine.

If you are not a fan of his tennis, or his on-court demeanour, or the fact he beats your favourite player probably more than anyone else, or even if you just don’t like him and can’t quite put your finger on why… that’s all fine.

The problem here is not the fans at all in truth. Fans should be free to choose their own heroes and, of course, their own villains too. That’s part of the fun.

The media, however, should probably be above that kind of thing.

Djokovic himself has recently suggested that he feels there is a media agenda against him. After some inaccurate reports that the Serbian had applied to re-join the ATP Players Council, it quickly became a big story. Many journalists simply ran with it, first without asking questions, and then by mostly ignore the answers.

Novak Djokovic being a bad-guy, after all, fits their chosen narrative – and they’ve chosen it because it sells.

Novak Djokovic dejected

Djokovic, of course, had not reapplied to join the Players Council. He had been nominated by his peers, which is something completely different. He explained, but few seemed to want to listen.

“Often the things I say are changed,” Djokovic said.

“They said that it might be hypocritical for me to be the founder of PTPA and to return to the Players’ Council at the same time. It is [more] important to write that Novak Djokovic is a hypocrite.

“But well, it’s not the first time.”

While some are happy to attribute that to a neatly-fitting, yet little-evidenced, persecution complex – a hallmark of all great villains – it is hard not to see genuine cause for Djokovic to feel that way.

After all, here we are three months after Djokovic literally said “I am not against a vaccine of any kind,” today we saw stories of the heroic Andy Murray being at odds with the nefarious anti-vaxxer Novak Djokovic over the issue of vaccines. The fact they both agreed with each other did not fit the narrative, so out it went.

For clarity, Djokovic did previously say that he was ‘opposed’ to vaccination, although the context was removed. The initial comments were made amid a time when it appeared plausible that players would be forced to take a vaccine that had not been adequately tested for safety in order to be allowed to play tennis.

Novak Djokovic pumped up

Context is king, unless you’ve got a story to sell, it seems.

“My issue here with vaccines is if someone is forcing me to put something in my body that I don’t want,” Djokovic had initially said. “For me that’s unacceptable.” A reasonably cautious sentiment.

Nobody wants to be forced to take an unsafe and untested vaccine surely? Also bear in mind this came after he was criticised for not being cautious enough at the Adria Tour. That criticism was fair and justified. Subsequently criticising him for over-caution is neither.

The issue of the PTPA has also been used to vilify Djokovic, and again a very grey area has been crudely hacked into black and white to feed the narrative.

It is a contentious issue, and there is little denying that. What it is not, crucially, is a Djokovic issue.

The crux of the situation is this: 150 (at last count) ATP players and, according to the most recent update ‘around 200 WTA players’ are unhappy with their professional representation.

Novak Djokovic didn’t make them unhappy. He is just the guy who has vowed to fight for them.

To read the coverage, though, you’d be led to believe Djokovic is dividing tennis out of a craving for personal power and the poor ATP are trying to survive.

“I feel like we can all co-exist in the same eco-system,” Djokovic explained. “We do not want to have an aggressive approach as has been said.

Novak Djokovic celebration - hardcourt favoured surface

“We want players of all levels to be heard and their problems are taken into account, especially since hundreds of Players complain about the current system.”

Shortly afterwards, the ATP made a rule excluding PTPA members from sitting on their council. To put it another way, they actively divided tennis.

And that just highlights why this obsession with vilifying Novak Djokovic can’t go on. Because, while the tennis press are focused on making him the bad-guy, no one is asking why hundreds of players are unhappy with their current representation and does something need to change.

The truth is, regardless of which side you fall in the PTPA/ATP argument, the important bit – the bit that we all should be noticing – is the fact that there is an argument. Reducing it to a cheap Novak Djokovic criticism does a disservice to the severity of the issue and those it is affecting.

Novak Djokovic divides opinion. We get it. We welcome it, actually, because how dull would it be if we all agreed on everything.

Disagree with him by all means. Dislike him if you must, but vilifying him for the sake of a forced narrative is one modern fashion trend that tennis can do without.

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