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REMEMBER WHEN: Novak Djokovic earned 'Joker' reputation with impersonations even Rafael Nadal (eventually) loved

If there is one thing that confuses younger tennis fans more than anything, it's Novak Djokovic's 'Joker' nickname. Well, it was well-deserved.
Novak Djokovic smiling

Reputations are a strange thing in general, not just in tennis, and the prime example is that of Novak Djokovic.

If you want to know the truth, of all the players we write about on TennisBuzz, by far the most criticised is Novak Djokovic. On social media, the criticism of the Serbian can be both plentiful and personal, and it all goes along the same lines.

Many try to portray him as an almost robotic, humourless and arrogant sulker whose propensity for huffs are his defining feature. They are, in our opinion, wrong – very wrong – but reputations rarely care for reflection.

There can be little doubt that Djokovic is a complex character, but surely such is the hallmark of the champion. Rafael Nadal’s character complexity, for example, is perhaps his most endearing feature as it grounds him in humanity. The same should be true of Djokovic, but for some reason people are less inclined to forgive the Serbian for his flaws.

But we digress. The point is, if you think Novak Djokovic is humourless, you’re wrong. We are after all, talking about the man who eared the nickname of Djoker (Joker).

It all started, publicly at least, in the locker room of the 2007 US Open. Djokovic, then just 20-years-old, was already the number three player in the world and he went on to lose to Roger Federer in his first ever Grand Slam final.

Djokovic’s immense potential was far from a secret at that point, but what did become known during that tournament, to the wider world at least, was his brilliance for impersonations.

A video emerged of the Serb impersonating various greats of the game, including Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova, and Andy Roddick.

They were well received, generally, and by the time the US Open had come around again in 2008 the routine had emerged from the privacy of the locker room and onto centre stage on Court Arthur Ashe.

The only person who didn’t really like them were Nadal himself who took himself far more seriously back then than he does now.

“I think this is not a show,” Nadal said when asked about the impressions. “I think this is a sport. Everyone can do what they want. My opinion, the show or the star is the tennis. It’s not the imitation.”

Maria Sharapova wasn’t a fan of it either. "He's got his own little thing going on,” she said at the 2008 Australian Open.

“So let him do it, I'm sure you guys are going to get bored of it. But it's fun any time you can get some entertainers out there."

Still, the demand remained from the public. It almost reached a point where he was being specifically asked to perform them in post-match interviews and trophy presentations.

In 2009, Djokovic got the chance to do his Nadal impression in front of the man himself in Rome. Nadal’s mood was perhaps more conducive to it than usual, given he had just beaten the Serb in straight sets to win the title.

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However, even Nadal was charmed, and the fans continued to lap it up from the stands.

In fact, the only person whom it had started to bother was Djokovic himself. He was in tennis to win and be remembered for it, not for anything else.

I always want people to remember me, of course, as a tennis player, as a great tennis player, a champion, whatever," Djokovic said.

"I don't want them to remember me as a clown."

They became rarer, although they didn’t disappear entirely, and nor did the demand for them from the fans.

At the 2014 Australian Open, on-court interviewer Jim Courier relayed a request from a fan for an impersonation of his then-coach Boris Becker. Djokovic obliged.

Since then, it is something that we rarely see on the court. In fact, it has reached the point that many modern fans don’t even know this side of Djokovic at all. They don’t remember Djokovic the Djoker. All they know is Djokovic the winner, Djokovic the great, Djokovic the ruthless, relentless machine.

“I don't regret anything,” Djokovic said in 2018 of the time in his career when he did the impressions that wound up some of his fellow-players.

“I've done things in life that might be considered as mistakes, depending on what angle you're analysing those actions of certain individuals.

“But deep in my heart I never had any intention of hurting or insulting anybody in my life ever.

“That's the most important thing. The only purpose of my imitations and joking, if you want to call it that way, is to have fun and bring the smile to the people's face.”

Eventually, even Maria Sharapova even grew to love it too...

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