The rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in men’s professional tennis is unquestionably one of the most famous in the history of modern sports. In their collective primes between 2004 and 2010, the two combined to win 24 of 28 grand slams.
Further, the contrast between Federer’s smooth, attacking game and Nadal’s rugged, counterpunching style contributed to some of the most famous matches in tennis history, such as the Wimbledon finals of 2007 and 2008. As a result, fans grew enamored with these giants of the sport.
Yet, since the beginning of the 2011 season, a new man has seized the helm of men’s professional tennis: Novak Djokovic. Despite holding only one grand slam title by the end of 2010, Djokovic has since added 19 to his name, tying with Federer and Nadal for first place in the all-time grand slam count. Further, Djokovic now holds the all-time record for the most weeks ranked No. 1 in the world and leads his head-to-head records against both Federer and Nadal.
Despite Djokovic’s undeniable status as one of — if not the — greatest men’s players of all time, it’s clear to anyone who has followed his career that he hardly enjoys the same level of admiration from fans as Federer and Nadal. While his rivals are fan-favorites across the globe, Djokovic is often frustrated with the crowd’s lack of support.
After his third round match at Wimbledon this year, he admitted, “It is a fact that I play 90% of my matches, if not even more than that, against the opponent, but against the stadium as well.”
Personally, I have joyfully watched Djokovic’s defeats and ridiculed his behavior with my friends over the years. While I long attributed this attitude to the fact that I am a Federer fan, my feelings of animosity toward him went beyond that.
As I watched him in this year’s Olympic Games, I began to notice how badly I wanted him to lose. I started to question why so many tennis fans view a legend of the sport so negatively.
The larger tennis community’s harshest criticism of the Serbian star is his attitude in competition. Although he may be the mentally toughest tennis player of all time, Djokovic displays rage-driven and unethical behavior frequently. For example, during the 2020 U.S. Open, Djokovic struck a ball in frustration after losing a point and hit a lineswoman in the neck, injuring her. Additionally, he has been known to yell at umpires and break his rackets excessively.
Yet, as someone who grew up playing tennis competitively, I can attest to how difficult it is to keep your emotions in check. Given that tennis is an individual sport, the pressure of important matches falls entirely on the shoulders of a single player, and subsequently is often incredibly difficult to contain. If one were to look at all professional men’s tennis players, they would be surprised to find that countless other players display behavior equal to or worse than Djokovic.
This brings me to my next point; tennis fans have grown so accustomed to Federer’s robotic calmness and Nadal’s relentless positivity that they expect the same perfect behavior from Djokovic. While I am not justifying striking a lineswoman with a tennis ball, critics of Djokovic need to recognize that he is his own individual. Although he should be punished for behaviors that cross the line, he should eventually be forgiven for mistakes and respected for how he uses his emotions to propel his performance.
I’m not implying that everyone should become huge fans of Djokovic. However, I do believe that he is deserving of a greater level of respect. Though I won’t be rooting for him to earn the all-time grand slam record and other similar accolades, I certainly won’t view him scornfully if he does.