Scars of Novak Djokovic’s troubled past contributed to his Wimbledon meltdown

Kevin Palmer
Novak Djokovic pointing during on-court interview
Novak Djokovic gestures to the crowd during an on-court interview

As Novak Djokovic heard what he thought were boos echoing around Wimbledon’s Centre Court, he put both hands to his ears to block out the din.

This was his nightmares coming back to haunt him on a court where he has gone a long way to building his tennis legacy.

With his dominance over Holger Rune clear for all of us who were sitting on Centre Court, the fans who wanted their day at Wimbledon to be extended started getting behind the underdog in the hope that he might mount a comeback.

Their chants of ‘Ruuunnneee’ was little more than jovial fun as they backed a player who they could see was in need of help to repel the increasingly impressive Djokovic.

What they were not expecting was the reaction from Djokovic.

The noise that the seven-time Wimbledon champion believed were boos for him hit raw nerve with a sporting legend who has clearly been damaged by the criticism that has flowed his way despite his remarkable success.

Yet the scale of the impact these cheers for Rune had on Djokovic highlighted the depth of his scars.

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Time and again over the last decade and more, tennis fans in London have cheered for anyone Djokovic has played against at both Wimbledon at the 02 Arena, where the end-of-year ATP Finals were staged for so long.

If these chants were coming at any other event, Djokvovic’s reaction may not have been so explosive, yet this was London calling once again and he simply couldn’t deal with what was coming at him.

When the crowd saw the reaction their chants were having on Djokovic, it encouraged them to raise the levels and cheer for Rune every time he won a point, with his dominant opponent even complaining to the chair umpire about the disrespect he felt was rushing toward him.

Djokovic got used to such treatment when he was up against Wimbledon favourite Roger Federer, but the idea that a young player many in the stadium were not supporting until they showed up at the All England Club on Monday was getting all the support was too much for him to take.

What followed was unseemly, as Djokovic let his guard drop as he picked out critics in the crowd and then launched an extraordinary rant on court in his post-match interview.

“Well, to all the fans that had respect and stayed here tonight thank you very much from the bottom of my heart, I appreciate it.

“And to all those people that have chosen to disrespect the player, in this case me, have a gooooood night. Gooood night, gooood night. Very good night.”

It was put to Djokovic that they were merely chanting Rune and not booing him, but the second seed countered back.

“They were (disrespecting), they were, they were. I don’t accept it,” Djokovic insisted.

“I know they were cheering for Rune, but that’s an excuse to also boo.

“Listen, I have been on the tour for more than 20 years. Trust me, I know all the tricks. I know how it works, it is fine. It is fine, it’s OK.

“I focus on the respectful people who pay for a ticket to come and watch tonight and love tennis.

“Love tennis and appreciate the players, appreciate the efforts that the players put in here. I have played in much more hostile environments, trust me. You guys can’t touch me.”

He then walked out of a BBC interview after the match and refused to accept the chants for Rune were anything other than abuse designed for him

This was Djokovic in combat mode, but it really didn’t need to be like this.

Had he smiled at the Rune chants and almost played with the crowd as they had their fun, they probably would have evaporated, but he helped to fan the flames of a scenario he clearly didn’t enjoy.

The harsh truth must be that Djokovic’s troubled past led him to believe the cheers for Rune must have been boos reserved for him, with a player who insists publicly he thrives on these kind of flare-ups merely stating those words to cover up the reality.

We all like to be loved. We all hope to be admired. And Novak Djokovic has done more than most to deserve both.

That he has reached the final phase of his career and is still striving and failing to gain the respect he is due is a pain he doesn’t even try to hide.