Why I Like Djokovic

Not to win the whole thing mind you. You need only have paid minimal attention the past couple of years to know that Nadal and Federer are just in a completely different league. But in the non-superhuman league that is the rest of men’s pro tennis, Djokovic is my favorite by far.

Men’s tennis plays a similar game with its audience as does classical ballet: it creates the illusion of effortlessness and lightness and ease (some of the women look graceful on the court but they almost all invariably grunt and look like they are working very very hard). Federer is the master of this, he makes it all look so easy. A couple of nights ago, when one of the commentators spotted Billie Jean King in the audience and asked her who her favorite player was, King replied “Federer.” “Why, what is it about his game that you love?” “Um…everything.” Nadal, with his more  conspicuously athletic body, almost looks meant for a different sport, but he likewise makes it seem like it is all so fun and easy.  And both are equally stoic on-court, soft-spoken off court, mild-mannered and lovely. Like tennis is supposed to be. Of the two “country-club” sports, tennis & golf, tennis is the one that can be called classy (golf is basically preppy and too much associated with schmoozy business outings to ever be classy).

Djokovic is the opposite. He does not make it look easy. But watching him is like getting to look inside the machine, at how the gears move and what they look like when they are not working properly.  His shots are so well-placed, that when one is not, you realize how much concentration and hard work the good ones demand. You see a human being at work, achieving superhuman feats that seem beyond him but with enough grit are not. And part of the enjoyment of watching Djokovic is that he is not stoic, on or off the court.  He does not have the seasoned reserve of so many of the players, but is also not a McEnroe hothead type. Actually Djokovic, known for doing impressions of other players (including Maria Sharapova) did a brilliant imitation of McEnroe last year, after which McEnroe and he played a few points to a very pleased audience.

Djokovic does not seem to have a huge following, partly because he is in the shadow of these two great men, but also for other reasons. (Though I sometimes suspect it might also have to do with where he is from, people don’t seem to jump at the chance to root for Serbia). One complaint is that he is a perennial underachiever and is too emotionally volatile. But that doesn’t seem quite right. Compare him to the fleeting talent of Marat Safin, who seemed to wear those traits on his sleeve, sometimes even proudly, and his underachievement in tennis, considering his ridiculous talent, can almost be described as tragic  (it is , at the end of the day, just a sport, even I would admit that, and in this case, one that is mostly played by the overprivileged, so can’t feel too too sorry for them if they fail, especially if they didn’t seem to want it all that badly. I haven’t heard much about him lately, but I suspect Marat Safin is doing quite alright).

Then there are the perennial just-better-than-mediocre players, like James Blake and Tim Henman (two cheeky English boys sitting behind me at the Djokovic-Monfils match kept shouting, “Come on Tim!”). They can say they’d had a good run and be too close to happy with it. This is not Djokovic, he is a winner, even if he has only won one Grand Slam and may possibly not win another as long as those two guys are around. Though Federer did drop one set to him recently at the Rogers Cup in Toronto, so you never know…

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5 Responses to “Why I Like Djokovic”

  1. Michael Murray Says:

    What I find interesting about Djokovic is that he’s actually very needy. (why do you think he does the imitations?) He wants to be loved and it bothers him, sincerely and personally, that the fans root against him, cheering for exemplars like the sublime Federer and the boyish Nadal. It’s a funny, slightly complicated thing, rendering Djokovic both endearing and unappealing, as all needy people turn out to be.

  2. ida Says:

    You’re right and I am guessing that is another reason why I find him so compellingly human (or non-superhuman and seemingly flawless like Nadal/Federer) and interesting to watch & observe.

  3. ida Says:

    Was just thinking about how A-Rod is probably one of the neediest pro athletes I can think of and I much prefer how Djokovich feeds his ego than how A-Rod does.

  4. Geoff Hurst Says:

    How does Djokovic match up through computer generated comparisons with the likes of Pancho Gonzalez, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Dennis Ralston, etc.??

  5. Peter Says:

    I will say though, that in that final match with Nadal, Djokovic was looking like he is approaching the superhuman. He made Rafa work. I mean it reached a point – very late in the third set, mind you – where Nadal’s triumph was clear. But I sat through the second set and early third set cursing and demanding that Nadal just finish him off. Djokovic really made him work hard for it. It is hard to outlast Nadal; and Djokovic got clumsier as the set wore on. But he went the distance. I think your mere mensch shall soon be an ubermensch.

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