21 or true love? Novak Djokovic dares to dream of more than just Grand Slams

Novak Djokovic celebrations

Novak Djokovic’s journey to be liked, loved and admired has always been a painful one, but Tim Ellis feels it is time to accept and enjoy his brilliance.

When Adele released the iconic album ’21’, a decade ago, she became one of the biggest pop stars ever. In sporting parlance, she decimated the field. The acclaim was universal although it was a record born through heartbreak.

At around the same time in 2011, Novak Djokovic became the best player on this planet, tearing it up in three Grand Slams and destroying everyone in a 41-match unbeaten run. It was brilliant stuff, but the world appeared to say ‘oh’ rather than ‘yeah!’

Some observers still don’t want to give the world No 1 a chance, even as he eyes his own special 21. The thing is, that number is the stick or twist from hell. It would be the number that takes him above the untouchables. You know who they are.

The unconverted don’t want to hear his acceptance speech after another major trophy. They groan when he talks worthily about the history of the game. If he eats the grass, they think that’s another of his Zen obsessions. If he acts with humility, they think it’s exactly that -an act. If he beats his chest and tears off his top – as he did against Rafael Nadal in the 2012 Australian Open final – then it is an unedifying spectacle.

In these eyes and through the lens of “he’s not Roger and he’s not Rafa”, he cannot be the people’s champion.

The Serb’s journey to be liked, loved and admired in something like that order has always been a painful one. That outpouring of his heart at the end of a match, thrown like imaginary petals from his chest to the crowd, has never really been fully reciprocated. Novak was the gatecrasher; the man that had the gall to take away titles from the revered palace of FEDAL .

However, the landscape is changing. Old Father Time is taking those two older gunslingers out of the equation. Nadal is a creaking 35 and not currently at the races. Roger Federer is 40 and looked his age when he got dumped out of Wimbledon by the functional Hubert Hurkacz. It’s sacrilege to even whisper that the Fed will struggle to get to the business end of the big ones now.

People are realising that this other guy was not the rogue third member of the winners’ circle.

It was the loss at the US Open final against Daniil Medvedev in September that broke the ice a little bit between Djokovic and the American capital. The 34-year-old declared himself “the happiest man alive” as he struggled to contain his emotions on the verge of defeat. “I felt something I never felt in my life here in New York. The crowd made me very special. They pleasantly surprised me. 21 could wait a bit.”

Surely, it’s madness that we truly only appreciate the man in defeat? In 2015, the stars seemed to align for the Serb to complete the Career Grand Slam in Paris until Stan Wawrinka played the match of his life. A devastated Djoker got a standing ovation that lasted for an eternal 90 seconds. It gave him a humanity that many didn’t want to recognise was already there. Think Federer at Melbourne in 2009. Even the coldest heart broke a tiny bit.

Djokovic didn’t want to be remembered for the tears of a clown. When he was on the rise in 2007, his impressions of the top players were a constant source of hilarity in the locker rooms, pricking the reverential acclaim afforded to the gods of the sport. Now he plays the straight man who has gone out of bounds a few times with judgement calls.

He was one of the most popular and approachable athletes in the Olympic Village at the Tokyo Games, but the imprinted memories will be of a player wrapped up in himself, smashing his rackets in defeat. As Nadal said, it was not a good look. He can be daft and disconnected from reality sometimes as his Adria tournament Covid PR catastrophe revealed.

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Remember this though: Djokovic has endured “90 per cent” of the stadium being against him. He even imagined they were shouting “Novak” rather than “Roger” in the epic 2019 Wimbledon final. He doesn’t want the polite but clinical admiration of an audience anymore.

John McEnroe insists it isn’t about a popularity contest: “When your time is up, are you judged by the amount of followers you have? Are you judged by how many fans have your shirts and scream your name?

“Get out of here. You’re judged by what you’ve done in the game. And you know what, in time – they might even come to like you. ” Bingo.

Now, it’s back to the business of drawing level with Federer’s six ATP Finals…

Follow Tim Ellis on Twitter @Timotei365