Comment: Novak Djokovic has won the lot – except the thing he really craves

Novak Djokovic arriving on court

After appearing to lose him composure in front of a vocally pro-Alexander Zverev in the ATP World Tour Final on Sunday, Michael Graham looks at the one thing Novak Djokovic just can’t seem to win. 

What Novak Djokovic has done in 2018 is unarguably special. There is absolutely no two ways of looking at it.

Indeed, to go from outside the top 20 at the start of the year and finish it top of the pile is actually unprecedented.

Granted, he has probably benefited from Rafael Nadal’s struggles with injuries that have cost him ranking points, and Roger Federer’s battles with Father Time, but it’s still a remarkable achievement.

There are those who will tell you that Djokovic’s first half of the year was as bad as his second half was good. In fact, he himself would probably make that point.

I don’t subscribe to that personally, though. Every sportsperson will suffer setbacks, whether it’s injury, personal problems, or simple loss of form, they will all be tested at some point.

And Djokovic’s elbow injury and subsequent loss of rhythm certainly tested him. He came through it, though, as all great champions do.

Novak Djokovic pensive

You learn a more about a sportsperson when things are tough than you ever will when they are effortlessly winning, and what we learned about Djokovic is that he is an absolute warrior and as driven as they come.

However, for all he has achieved both this year and before that in his glittering career, when you watch him, you tend to get the sense that what he really wants the most, he doesn’t get.

More to the point, he doesn’t understand why he can’t get it and doesn’t look like he knows how to get it.

What we are talking about, of course, is love.

Say what you want about Roger Federer, but he is loved by tennis fans around the world. He is a brilliant ambassador for not just tennis but sport, and he tends to have a crowd on his side from the moment he enters an arena.

Nadal too, to a lesser extent admittedly, usually has the good will of the crowd, and not just at Roland Garros where he is revered as a King.

Djokovic, though, not so much. The Serbian evidently has some kind of quality that seems to make him quite unlikable to the neutral.

What’s more, it bothers him. You can tell.

I am sure there was a time in his career when he couldn’t care less about such things. When he was on his way to the top, for example, it’s unlikely he worried about whether or not people wanted him to get there.

He cares now though, and after all he’s achieved, why shouldn’t it?

At The O2 on Sunday, Djokovic lost his game when the crowd decided to root for Alexander Zverev. The world number one was visibly irritated and unsettled by it, and his game suffered. The icy robotic demeanour seemed to slip, and Zverev was able to take advantage.

It was a similar story for Djokovic in the US Open final against Juan Martin del Potro, although he was able to keep it more together then. Perhaps, though, he just had more time given it was best-of-five to gather himself, and he’d have known the Flushing Meadows crowd would root for their darling Del Potro before the match too.

Zverev, though, went into the final on the back of boos for beating Roger Federer in the semis, so Djokovic was likely taken quite unawares when they were suddenly roaring the German on against him.

Novak Djokovic standing tall

The solution, though, does not lie in changing it. It lies in embracing it.

Djokovic has never been loved by tennis neutrals, for whatever reason, and it seems highly unlikely they are going to start now.

He’s going to be the pantomime villain anyway, so he’d might as well just forget about how much he wants to be loved and embrace and enjoy being disliked instead.

It is, after all, a compliment of sorts.

But there is no doubt about it, for all Novak Djokovic has won in his career, he can’t seem to win the hearts of the people, and it definitely bothers him.

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