Will the newly recrowned Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic ever receive the acclaim he is due?
After the Serbian winning machine churned out another heroic fightback to beat a crestfallen Dominic Thiem in a thrillingly unpredictable Australian Open final in Melbourne, the platitudes that should flow for a champion who claimed 17th Grand Slam title of his remarkable career are likely to be diluted.
A glance at the reaction flowing on social media channels as Djokovic sealed his 6-4, 4-6, 2-6, 6-3 6-4 win on Rod Laver Arena confirmed that for many tennis lovers, this latest Novak triumph was a moment of despair rather than a triumph for a champion who appears to be destined to finish his career with a worthy claim to be the greatest player of all time.
With Djokovic now just two major titles behind Rafael Nadal and three short of Roger Federer’s record-breaking total of 20, this living legend of his sport could expect to be lavished with praise every time he steps onto a court, yet he faces the opposite reaction time and again for a number of reasons.
While Djokovic receives more love in Australia than almost anywhere else on the tennis road show thanks to a sizeable Serbian contingent that worship every step made by their greatest sportsman, the wider tennis audience have a different view of a 32-year-old warrior who is a victim of bad timing.
The king of Australia 👑
— Eurosport UK (@Eurosport_UK) February 2, 2020
You see, by the time Djokovic established himself as a serial collector of Grand Slam trophies, tennis fans had already pinned their colours to the mast of either Federer or Nadal and a duel that was impossible to resist at the top of the game.
At first, Djokovic was a welcome challenger to the ‘Big Two’ as he pushed them all the way and generally ended up smiling at the net as he congratulated Roger or Rafa on their victory, but the tide of popular opinion turned against Novak when he started beating them with a little too much ease.
To devotees of Federer and Nadal, Djokovic’s breakthrough was a ‘crime’ he could never be forgiven for and as he has travelled the world picking up title after title over the last decade, Djokovic has been punished time and again for ruining the Roger and Rafa show.
He has had to put up with cheers when he misses his first serve or doubles faults at Wimbledon and London’s ATP Finals, he is always the second favourite with the American audiences when he takes on Federer or Nadal and even though his achievements are threatening over surpass his two fellow legends, the affection he naturally craves seems destined to elude him.
Of course, Djokovic has not helped himself at times with his surly attitude and aggressive body language hard for many to love, with his outburst directed at chair umpire Damien Dumusois as he was given two code violation warnings at the end of the second set against Thiem in his latest final handing his detractors more fuel to add to their fire as the incident instantly started trending on Twitter.
Tapping the umpire’s shoes before sarcastically suggesting he had ‘made himself famous’ by merely following the rules after Djokovic had taken too long to deliver his serves was a moment of petulance that was as ugly as it was unnecessary, yet would Federer or Nadal have been chastised with such venom?
— Christine Vanden Byllaardt (@cvbyllaardt) February 2, 2020
Of course not, but this is the lot Djokovic has to accept as his achievements on court may never be enough to convince his critics that he deserves to be placed on the same pedestal as Federer and Nadal.
When I asked Djokovic whether he felt got the credit deserves from tennis fans after his defeat against Federer at last year’s pre-Wimbledon Boodles event at Stoke Park, he shrugged his shoulders and said he ‘accepted Roger is popular’, yet his annoyance was simmering under the service on a night when his mistakes were cheered by a partisan crowd.
That frustration was in evidence again seconds before he won his eighth Australian Open title as after he missed his first serve, a fan gave out a loud cheer of ‘Yes’. Djokovic gave him a steely star before winning the final point and blowing him a kiss to remind him of his invincibility.
Bizarrely, there was some booing as he went up to make his speech after his latest win, but Djokovic must have accepted his fate long ago.
He is a great ambassador for tennis, does so much for good causes with his charity work, shows professionalism few have ever matched, but a bronze medal may be the best he will get in the eyes of the public.
Even if he ends up winning more Grand Slam titles than any other player, the most popular players in tennis will be Federer first, Nadal second and the third seems destined to be whoever is playing Djokovic.
What a brutal sentence for a player who has achieved so much.
Follow Kevin Palmer on Twitter @RealKevinPalmer
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