Comment – Novak Djokovic’s biggest opponent is revealed… and he won’t meet him on court

Kevin Palmer

As the cries rang out around Arthur Ashe Stadium court during his first round match against Danish newcomer Holger Rune, an all-too-familiar sense of isolation descended on Novak Djokovic.

At the start of a tournament that could end with the world No.1 sealing the ultimate achievement in tennis as he looks to add the US Open trophy to the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon titles he has already won in 2021, Djokovic has a right to expect some support from the New York crowd as he looks to achieve a moment of sporting history.

Yet the scars that have been inflicted on Djokovic from so many years of being the ‘third guy’ in a tennis narrative dominated by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have, inevitably, left a mark.

Despite his record-breaking achievements that will ensure he is recognised as the greatest player of all-time long before he hits his final ball in anger, Djokovic’s biggest opponent this week may be the inner demons eating away at his soul.

We have long since got to the point where Djokovic fears the adulation he should be getting as he aims to become the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to win all four Grand Slam titles in the same year will not come his way and that explains his reaction in his game against Rune.

At first, it appeared that the large and traditionally alcohol-fuelled New York crowd were booing mid-way through the second set of Djokovic’s match against Rune and given the history he has lived through with the US Open fans, Novak instantly felt the animosity was directed towards him.

We should not be surprised he reacted in this way. After all, he has lived through too many matches against Federer and Nadal when the New York fans have been almost entirely on the side of your opponents, it is natural to believe you are the subject of their ire again.

He has faced similar rejections from crowds in London at Wimbledon and the World Tour Finals, with some of the partisan cheering against the Serb in those events bordering on the scandalous as he missed shots or served up double faults.

Yet on this occasion, Djokovic misjudged the moment as in reality, the New York crowd was shouting ‘Ruuunnneee’ as they cheered on the energetic underdog as he threatened to make a match of his big stage debut following one-sided first set. Some did get carried away as they cheered Novak’s double faults in what became a pantomime atmosphere, but the cries of support for Rune outweighed any negativity towards the world’s best player.

However, Novak didn’t appreciate that reality at the time and the slump in his level of performance and at the moment when he felt the crowd was on his back highlighted how badly a baying crowd now impacts Novak’s otherwise steely mindset.

Unforced errors flowed from the Serb as Rune ended up winning the second set with the help of his newly acquired fans base, who appreciated his willingness to take on the indestructible champion.

Yet this was a moment that exposed what may now be the only weak spot in Djokovic’s fearsome armory, with his former coach Boris Becker highlighting how this has become such a big issue for the history chaser in tennis. 

“He doesn’t like it when the fans go against him, nobody would like it, he is a people person most of all,” tennis legend Becker told Tennis365. “He’s somebody that knows where he’s from, he’s a very proud Serbian, he does a lot of charity work back home, he has a huge charity, a huge foundation.

“And people don’t talk about that side, they talk about the street fighter, the one that breaks rules, that he’s a difficult guy. I don’t think he’s difficult, he’s a champion, he’s got character, he wants to win of course, but sometimes he gets the wrong end of the stick.

“I think the tennis world on the men’s side is divided between Federer fans and Nadal fans, and then comes Djokovic as somebody who crashes the party.”

Boris Becker and Novak Djokovic

Former British No.1 Greg Rusedski also suggested the Djokovic gets unjustified treatment from tennis fans, but suggested he can use the negativity to inspire him.

“I think the New York crowd will get behind Djokovic if he gets into the second week because they will want to see history made with the calendar Grand Slam,” Rusedski told Tennis365 in an exclusive interview.

“Maybe he is not the most popular player on the tour, but Novak should ignore that. He is going to end up being recognised as the greatest player of all time and that’s the title that really matters. Not whether he wins a popularity contest with Federer or Nadal.

“Novak is the kind of character who is not afraid to speak out on controversial matters to say what he feels. When the crowd are against him, he tries to use that as motivation and we have seen an example of it working in his favour, but it can’t be nice when he has been booed in the past.”

As Djokovic looks to dance his way through to the second week of the US Open, we have already seen the biggest threat to his hopes of cementing his legacy in New York on Sunday week.

The tennis world has yet to find a candidate in 2021 to dethrone the game’s ultimate king, but the fans in the stands could be opponent Djokovic finds harder to beat before his date with destiny arrives.

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