The crowd’s disappointment could be heard from miles away. Roger Federer had just double-faulted on break point at 2-3 down in the third set against Novak Djokovic in the men’s finals of the Indian Wells Masters 1000 tournament. Djokovic led 4-2, and during the next 10 minutes, if it lasted that long, he rolled through two relatively quick games to triumph over his rival 6-3 6-7 6-2, and win the prestigious “5th Major” of the year, as some like to call the tournament in the desert. It was one of the quietest two-game stretches at any final match of a tournament.
This is the kind of crowd response that Djokovic, one of the great champions of the modern era, has to face every time he takes the court against his two main rivals, Federer and Rafael Nadal. Who can forget the bitter clapping gesture that he made to the crowd at Philippe Chatrier when he lost the final match of Roland Garros against Nadal on a double fault last year? He dealt with a pro-Nadal crowd at that match too. He has a unique challenge, one with which no other great player in the modern times had to deal. He has been, is, and will remain to be, the “third best” of his times. The “has been” and “is” portions are guaranteed as he lacks titles and accolades to surpass either of them in the perennial “Greatest Player of All-Time” debate. The “will be” part is still up for debate.
However, the thirdness of Djokovic has nothing to do with the on-court accomplishments. It stems from the timing of his arrival to the scene, and the saturated market of fan base. He is the tennis world version of that third cola company that is desperately trying to garner customers who will embrace its brand over those of the long-existing and beloved PepsiCo and Coca-Cola companies.
It is the price that Djokovic has to pay every time he sets foot on a tennis court across the net from Nadal and Federer. The Spaniard and the Swiss are class acts, but so is the Serb. Anyone who follows the tour closely, media members, and other players, can attest to the fact that Djokovic treats everyone, including tennis fans, with the utmost respect, no more or no less than the two other great champions of his time.
However, Djokovic arrived to the top of the game at a time (late 2000s) when most tennis fans, if not all, have made their choices between Federer and Nadal. There was no room for a Serbian player with a rather vociferous team in the player’s box rooting for him. Everyone knows how harshly and subjectively die-hard Federer fans scrutinize every word that comes out of Nadal’s mouth, or every injury that he gets. The reverse is equally done with ardor by Nadal fanatics whenever Federer loses a match or makes a “twistable” comment. Now imagine both groups of fans combined to apply the same scrutiny on one single player… Djokovic is that player!
Because not only is he the outsider in their eyes, but he also does a pretty darn effective job of challenging their beloved players…
Because he pushes them around quite efficiently on the court…
Because he frequently shakes their hands as the winner…
One could even rightfully make the case for Djokovic being the best player in the first half of the current decade. The numbers say so, his ranking says so, and will continue to say so for the rest of 2015 due to the large lead that he holds over his opponents.
How dare he? The answer matters less that the fact that he does dare, and thus becomes the target of millions of fans who do not want to see the domination that their duo enjoyed in the mid-to-late-2000s comes to an end.
Unfortunately for them, it seems to have come to a crushing end, at least on the court! Unfortunately for Djokovic, the chances of its end crystalizing in the imaginary “third” position of popularity will probably not arrive anytime soon.
The much more mature Djokovic of today understands that and deals with it accordingly. He praises his two main rivals and often talks about how much positive influence they had over him and his game. Never mind that if he were to put the racket down today and never pick it up again, he would still have a career comparable to, if not better than, the past great champions such as John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, and Stefan Edberg.
Yet, Djokovic has no intention of doing that. He continues along his path and aims for the two players that are considered the top two greatest players of all times by many. His chances of catching them in terms of tennis accomplishments: slim! In terms of popularity: none!
We can however speculate comfortably that he deals with a unique challenge, a singular place in history, with more courage and clarity than many other players would.
For that alone, he deserves respect…