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Novak Djokovic's self-regard wins him few friends – but lots of matches

The same characteristics that make him a sporting giant only add to his fallibility as a private citizen.
A Serbian fan display their flag in support of Novak Djokovic during the ATP Cup in Sydney yesterday. Photo: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/Reuters

A Serbian fan display their flag in support of Novak Djokovic during the ATP Cup in Sydney yesterday. Photo: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/Reuters

Simon BriggsTelegraph Media Group Limited

For as long as the pandemic continues, Novak Djokovic will keep making headlines through his rejection of medical science. But the story of his late dash to Melbourne, performed through a mysterious back door, is particularly piquant.

My favourite element is the tone-deaf nature of Djokovic’s original social-media post. “I’ve spent fantastic quality time with my loved ones over the Christmas break,” he wrote, “and today I’m heading Down Under with an exemption permission. Let’s go 2022!”

Judging by the upbeat wording, Djokovic was expecting the world to cheer along with him. He always assumes that he will be given the benefit of the doubt, because that’s what happens in his native Serbia – a country where he is perceived as Don Bradman, Frank Sinatra and Winston Churchill rolled into one.

We need hardly say that Djokovic’s expectations failed to tally with reality, nor that a chorus of discontent arose from Melburnians, Australian politicians, and sporting rivals. But never mind. It is this lordly self-regard, this unbreakable optimism, which explains why he prevails, time after time, no matter the level of opposition.

Self-awareness? Who needs that in an individual sport? It might be a useful social asset to know how others see you, and where you stand within the great torrent of humanity.

But if you are a 20-year-old playing your first Major final against Roger Federer, it doesn’t help to view the world in 360 degrees. Quite the reverse, in fact. The best equipment is a set of psychological blinkers, to prevent you from realising the inherent unlikelihood of what you are trying to do.

To be No 1 requires an ability to shut down every other take, to be self-reliant, to push forward no matter what the critics might say. Which is why Djokovic was never going to unpick his earlier position and receive a Covid vaccination, even if that had been the only way to get into the Australian Open. To back down is not in his nature.

Many great champions pursue a similar path. Take Tiger Woods, or Michael Schumacher. These are not people who care what others think of them. Rules are for the little people. There is only the self, and the goal, and the road that links the two.

Djokovic is perhaps a little unusual here, in that he takes more and more interest in being a crowd favourite as well as a cold-eyed champion. But this mission has come relatively late in Djokovic’s career, as he seeks new motivations. It is also another instance of his bullet-headed imperviousness to reality. He cannot see that he will never be admired in the manner of Federer or Rafael Nadal, even if he were to win 10 more Major titles.

Once Djokovic has fixed on something, he does not give it up. Take his vulnerability to various quacks, from the so-called expert who diagnosed his gluten allergy by making him hold a piece of bread, to the alternative health guru who sells bottles of “Advanced Brain Nutrients” at $50 a pop. Don’t bother pointing out the scientific holes in their arguments, because he won’t listen.

The same rule also applies to Djokovic’s pursuit of that era-defining 21st Grand Slam title, which now looks odds-on to be delivered in Melbourne at the end of the month. OK, so he won’t enjoy the barracking that he is sure to receive from the Australian fans. He might snarl, or bare his teeth. He might grumble about unfairness. But he won’t be put off his stride.

Remember that Djokovic has spent most of his career in this position. Particularly in New York, and also at Wimbledon, he has played finals against Federer where the one-sidedness of the crowd has been almost embarrassing. Yes, he broke down in tears at last year’s US Open, where the fans gave him a rare vote of support against Daniil Medvedev. But that was at the end of an exhausting season. Expect him to carve through the Melbourne draw in his usual ruthless manner.

To return to the medical issues, Djokovic’s vaccine scepticism remains unfortunate. It is now more than 18 months since Serbia’s chief epidemiologist asked him to stop “creating misconceptions”, yet he remains a figurehead for the naysayers.

But this is all a piece of who Djokovic is. The same characteristics that make him a sporting giant only add to his fallibility as a private citizen.


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