One of the most memorable sporting events I’ve ever attended was the 2012 Wimbledon men’s final, which saw the great Swiss Roger Federer take on the Brit Andy Murray. No Briton had won Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936: that’s 76 years of national disappointment and heartbreak.
However, what made the game unique was not only the prospect of history being made, but also the palpable conflict within the Center Court audience. As much as they wanted Murray to put an end to his national suffering, they didn’t want beloved Federer to suffer in the process.
LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports, and navigating life in America.
I hope that one day Novak Djokovic will reach the level of reverence that Federer enjoys. But it doesn’t look good.
Wednesday’s win in straight sets over Jordan Thompson brought the Serb closer to his eighth Wimbledon title, equaling Federer’s record, and 24th major overall, equaling a record set by Margaret Court. Djokovic is the only player to have beaten both Federer and Spaniard Rafael Nadal in all four Majors. When he retires, he will likely own all the important tennis stats.
And yet the 36-year-old is still trying to figure out how to win what he probably desires most: the kind of love that has home crowds crossing their fingers for the visitors against their will – the kind of Love that would make him feel the greatest good.
At first, the men’s tennis crown rested uncomfortably on Djokovic’s head because he wasn’t human. Then his handling of the pandemic cast an unflattering light on him.
In the early days of COVID-19, in 2020, Djokovic embarked on an ill-fated show tour that felt like a millionaire’s tantrum. Upset by canceled tournaments, world No. 1 at the time basically used its platform to organize a super spreader event: sold-out seats in the stands, lots of hugs among players, no social distancing by anyone.
predictable, Djokovic soon tested positive for the virus, as did his wife. The same was true of other players who took part, including Viktor Troicki and his then-pregnant wife. It was incredibly selfish, and so were his fellow players on social media.
“Prayers to all Players suffering from Covid-19tweeted Nick Kyrgios, who wasn’t a huge Djokovic fan to begin with. Kyrgios added that while he could be accused of being irresponsible or stupid, “that sucks.”
Djokovic takes part in the Tokyo Olympics the following year threw his bat after losing the singles match for the bronze medal. He then retired from a mixed doubles match due to injury, but his breakdown had cast doubt on his real reasons.
After being refused entry to Australia last year for not being vaccinated against COVID, Djokovic found himself at the center of an international circus. He tried to portray himself as a victim of political correctness, but later admitted he lied in his travel documents – again for selfish reasons.
Djokovic can be generous, approachable and funny. Yet he remains frustratingly irritable and numb in a way we wouldn’t expect from athletes of his level.
It’s not uncommon for a sporting era to be marked by a bad boy or two. Such athletes can even briefly top a game.
But bad guys aren’t typically featured in the “greatest of all time” talk. Because to reach that level, talented bad guys have to grow into battle-hardened men.
The business of professional sports also requires top athletes to be attractive to as many fans as possible. During his anti-vax drama in Australia, Djokovic lost both sponsors and the benefit of the doubt.
Djokovic’s desire to be the game’s ambassador is at odds with his need to be its main opponent. He divides the difference, which satisfies no one.
I want to feel comfortable in this era of tennis and with Federer and Nadal as faces, I did that. However, Djokovic has proven that he is the best of them all and therefore this time is his – on the pitch anyway.
It’s not that Djokovic doesn’t have fans; of course he does. But when Murray finally ended the UK drought at Djokovic’s expense in 2013, I felt none of the conflicting sympathy in the crowd that Murray’s loss to Federer had evoked the year before.
It was the last time Djokovic lost on Center Court – but not the last that the Wimbledon crowd openly cheered on his opponent, usually Federer.
I hope Djokovic finds his way into more hearts and is celebrated the way a champion like him should be. But it doesn’t look good.