The Challenger

There is a deep-seated trend in tennis, and sports in general, that aesthetic beauty is somehow a sign of merit. You need look no further than the reverence for Roger Federer’s one-handed backhand despite it being his worst shot. The best sign for merit is constantly staring us in the face — does a shot work? Does it win many points and lose few points? — but we have a strange tendency to avoid using this painfully obvious criteria.

It feels like no one has lost out more from this line of thinking than Novak Djokovic. His backhand, which is one of the very best shots to come out of this glorious era, is constantly underappreciated (at the very least, it’s not revered) because a lot of people decided it’s prettier to watch someone take a hand off the racket as they hit through a backhand than it is to watch someone keep the second hand on the stick. Not only that, but Djokovic is often described as a difficult player to appreciate visually. In some cases, this is true — it takes some time to understand exactly why he’s so freaking good — but come on, watch him sprint from corner to corner to paste a backhand down the line while practically doing a full split and tell me that’s not astonishing to watch.

I used to hate Djokovic. Mostly because he threw tantrums on court and broke rackets. In my early days as a tennis fan, I didn’t know enough about tactics to understand what made a player good, so I picked favorites based on players’ temperament on court. I didn’t like Djokovic’s, so I didn’t like Djokovic. It got to the point where I would enjoy rooting against him, because every point he lost gave me a little hit of dopamine.

As you can probably guess, this chapter didn’t end well. When you don’t like a player, you don’t just want them to lose, you want them to lose the big matches. You want them to lose the close matches. You want them to lose from advantageous positions. After a while, I found out that Djokovic just doesn’t do that. He doesn’t do any of those things. He might tap out of an inconsequential match, or he might even get rolled in a final. But he doesn’t lose the close matches. He shows up, unfailingly, in those fifth sets. He saves those match points. He never loses the way you want him to lose. He always feels dangerous, even when he’s borderline tanking. It feels like anyone who manages to beat him should be relieved as much as elated. He’s probably the worst possible player to root against if satisfaction is what you’re after.

My dislike of Djokovic was probably accentuated by the fact that it took me a long time to understand his game. I was clueless, but it didn’t help that his biggest assets were the most underemphasized by mainstream tennis media, and the toughest to appreciate via the immediate eye test: the return of serve, the high-margin aggression, the general lack of a weakness. The sheer brilliance of his return of serve — one of the most devastating skills of the entire era — isn’t the most visually gratifying if you want to see winners, for instance. To be clear, this doesn’t matter at all — Djokovic’s incredibly deep returns are way more reliable than Agassi-esque return winners — but as an entry-level tennis fan, it was hard to appreciate. Say a player hits a huge serve and Djokovic reflexes it back onto the baseline, forcing an error. I didn’t see Djokovic pulling off a belief-defying retrieval, I saw the other player rushing and missing their first shot after the serve. Even when Djokovic was taking players apart, crushing them while barely losing a game, I didn’t really pick up on what he was doing well. Maybe because I didn’t want to.

Somewhere along the way, I watched highlights of the 2012 Australian Open final and picked up a new appreciation for what a beast Djokovic is. Shortly after I learned about that iconic marathon, Djokovic beat Nadal in one of the greatest matches of this era, the 2018 Wimbledon semifinal. I watched the whole match on replay, at which point I realized that Djokovic’s serve and forehand might not be the best ever, but they’re damn good, and his return of serve and defense are even better.

In 2015, Brian Phillips wrote this about Djokovic: “One of the fascinating paradoxes of Djokovic is that he seems to crave the crowd’s affection while producing tennis brilliantly calculated to take the crowd out of a match.”

He’s right — while some players (Nadal, for instance) are magnets for fantastic matches, drawing a high level from their opponent as well as themselves — Djokovic often does the opposite. He stifles. There have been a few times when he’s thrashed Nadal, absolutely demolished him, and those matches are are dazzling for the level Djokovic brings, but as a match, they’re boring; he simply doesn’t let Nadal do any of the things he does well, and the product is reminiscent of a pro beating up on a club player.

At the U.S. Open in 2011, Djokovic was crashing through Nadal, having won the first two sets 6-2, 6-4. He went up a break in the third, at which point Nadal started to come back at him. With Djokovic serving at 2-1 and deuce, he pressed a little too far forward after hitting a backhand down the middle. Nadal hit deep, forcing Djokovic to put extra air under his next shot, and Nadal murdered it with an inside-out forehand, forcing the error. Luke Jensen, who was calling the match, exclaimed “where has that been?!”

This bit of commentary actually did a disservice to Djokovic. Nadal’s forehand is an obviously fearsome weapon, but it requires time to fire the missiles it is capable of, and Djokovic had become a master at starving Nadal of time. He hit so deep so consistently that Nadal’s forehand could be reduced to a mere rally shot a lot of the time. Not only that, but Djokovic was targeting Nadal’s backhand with unheard-of patience and relentlessness. Nadal simply wasn’t getting chances to hit forehands like the aforementioned inside-out bomb. And this is what Djokovic does: he makes his opponents look ordinary. He takes their biggest weapons and makes them appear irrelevant, either by avoiding them or rushing them. He gets back crazy serves, gets a racket on unreachable shots. It’s a slight pressure, but it quickly becomes overwhelming because Djokovic applies it constantly. You might not see it if you aren’t looking, but in practically all of Djokovic’s matches, his opponent will mess up in a weird way — maybe they’ll miss a smash, or aim for the line on a simple putaway, or miss a seemingly random rally shot. It’s not them, it’s him. Trust me.

This relentless pressure is one of the great assets ever developed by a tennis player, but it often goes underappreciated, maybe because it can actually lower the quality of a match. His best matches with Nadal usually require Djokovic to be off in some form or another, because when he is on, he tends to cruise, at least on grass and hard courts. Nadal hasn’t beaten him on a hard court, or even taken a set, since 2013. Thus, it’s easy to say the blame lies with Nadal for not finding a way into the matchup, but the reality is that there may not be a way in. He’s a tactical genius, but Djokovic is the one puzzle he’s never been able to solve consistently. Djokovic has beaten him in 26 out of their last 40 matches.

*****

Djokovic’s game has never been an issue. You remember that story from way back in 2005 when Toni Nadal watched a 17-year-old Djokovic practice at Wimbledon for five minutes and went sprinting to his nephew to tell him that they had a problem. Sure, Djokovic has struggled with his serve and fitness in the past, but there was always a sense about him that when he got it together, the sky was the limit. Hell, Peter Bodo wrote a piece deeming him “The Perfect Player” in 2007, and he was right. (Side note: it’s hilarious to see how the tennis landscape has shifted since then, starting with the reference to Richard Gasquet as “Baby Federer” in the first line of the piece.)

It’s funny, then, that it still feels like some of the tennis world is trying to figure out who Novak Djokovic is. As a player and a person. There have been some pretty shocking misconceptions — he’s been called a pusher despite easily having a top-ten-level serve and forehand. He’s been called lucky despite being perhaps the most clutch player of all time.

These misconceptions all started with the nature of Djokovic’s rise: namely, that he broke through the Federer-Nadal duopoly to become better than both of them in 2011. The way that Djokovic did this, winning an astonishing 10 of 11 matches against those two in that glorious breakout year, threw off a lot of people. First of all, someone other than Nadal had started to beat Federer consistently. That was weird. But Djokovic was also beating Nadal constantly, in an eerily similar way to how Nadal had dominated Federer — torturing the backhand, running everything down to neutralize the huge forehand — and that was weird. Federer and Nadal had ruled tennis for a good six or seven years at that point, and did so in a feel-good way — there was no animosity in their rivalry. People seemed to like both of them. Djokovic’s rise, if he had merely become an equal part with them, might have been more widely accepted.

Djokovic beats Nadal in ways no one else can an astonishing number of times in this video alone. He wins rallies of over 25 shots. He returns snarling Nadal forehands from all corners of the court and goes on to take the offensive. He wins ad-court rallies. After 2010, Nadal had been the toughest puzzle in men’s tennis for some time, yet Djokovic completely solved him in 2011.

Problem was, Djokovic didn’t become an equal part. He became the main part, shoving the other two out of the way. Federer won just one major in six years from 2011 to 2016, a period that lined up exactly with Djokovic’s rise. The Swiss could beat Djokovic at times, but never from a set down (the only exception being Dubai in 2014), and never at a major after Wimbledon in 2012. Nadal was able to continue ruling Roland-Garros and even grabbed the 2013 U.S. Open, but it felt like everything off of clay was on Djokovic’s racket. He would have very good years like 2012, 2013, and 2014 in which he won one major, the World Tour Finals, and several Masters 1000s, and it would still feel like he was underachieving.

Djokovic’s dominance in 2011 just jolted people. It wasn’t as if Federer and Nadal started playing worse that year, it was that Djokovic had improved. All of a sudden, he was better than them, despite them having far more major titles. It created an uncomfortable dichotomy. Djokovic wasn’t widely included in the GOAT debate until around 2019, but the reality is that he’s probably been a contender since well before that. The greatest ever has to be the greatest of their generation, and Djokovic has compiled epic records against Federer and Nadal since the start of his prime.

His rise in 2011 is also, I think, the source of the bizarre fascination with Djokovic’s desire to be liked. The reason why he isn’t as roundly loved as Federer and Nadal starts with the nature of his ascension — when he reached #1, there were already two all-time greats firmly entrenched in the elite, each with massive fanbases. Djokovic wanting fans to cheer for him more readily is relatable, but more than that it’s easily explained: he’s as good as Federer and Nadal, so why isn’t he appreciated equally? It’s down to the circumstances at least as much as it’s down to Djokovic himself, and that’s a very easy thing to get frustrated about.

Pundits and fans alike have turned this simple phenomenon into an obsession. It gets talked about virtually every time Djokovic plays. This takes even more of the focus away from Djokovic’s tennis, which accentuates the lack of understanding around his game. Last year, I was watching Djokovic destroy Tallon Griekspoor at the U.S. Open without playing anything resembling his best tennis. Jimmy Arias, who was calling the match, kept saying Griekspoor needed to get the crowd behind him to throw Djokovic off balance.

Let’s think about this for a second. Has Djokovic ever lost a match because the crowd cheered hard for his opponent? Most of the man’s big wins have been in situations like that! There was the 2015 U.S. Open final, where the already extremely pro-Federer crowd was hopped up on alcohol and raring to go after the match got delayed for a few hours. There was the 2019 Wimbledon final, where the crowd screamed themselves hoarse in hopes that Federer would win one more major title. Djokovic won both matches.

I understand why Arias was reaching for that narrative — it’s because to acknowledge that Djokovic is impervious to such intangibles is to acknowledge that far lesser opponents have absolutely no chance of beating him. Since we watch sports for the drama, that’s not a particularly pleasing thing to talk about, but its unsexiness doesn’t make it any less true. So here it is, in plain terms: Djokovic has no major weaknesses. If he is fit and engaged, a player with a notable weakness — be it fitness, their backhand, a lack of firepower, or anything else — is not going to beat him in a major. It’s just not going to happen. And trying to create suspense out of nothing does a disservice to the most complete male player to ever pick up a racket.

It’s for this reason, I think, that his game is so widely hated on. “He’s a pusher,” people have said. “He wins by making opponents miss.” What? This is a guy who has sometimes traded forehands with Federer and come out on top. Juan José Vallejo has highlighted Federer-Djokovic matches in the past in which Djokovic has made Federer run more than the reverse, exposing that Djokovic is very offensive, it’s just our choice to ignore it.

As complete and clutch as Djokovic is, he has a tendency to make things harder for himself. At the U.S. Open last year, he won from a set down so many times that people suggested he was falling behind on purpose. Often, he’ll choke on a pretty big point — in the 2019 Wimbledon final, he double faulted up 4-2, 30-all in the fifth, then got broken, then got broken again at 7-all, only to recover by saving two match points and winning the match in a 12-all tiebreak — then rebound by playing incredible tennis on an even bigger point. Calling him a machine seems almost as lazy as saying he’s not a fun player to watch. He has plenty of blips. He once made 100 unforced errors against Gilles Simon at the 2016 Australian Open. Remember, this is a guy who people say never makes unforced errors. He’s incredibly fit, but it’s never been uncommon to see him hunched over in exhaustion after a long rally. (He almost always recovers quickly.) He’s not a robot, he’s not perfect. But he seems like he could be when you watch him play the big points.

*****

Djokovic’s strengths are somewhat untraditional. For years, the archetype was big serve, big forehand, everything else decent enough not to crumble. In a way, Djokovic emerged as the perfect foil to that archetype. He mastered the return of serve instead of the serve itself (though his serve turned out to be pretty damn good). He developed a stunningly versatile and consistent backhand instead of a nuclear forehand. That other stuff, the stuff that tennis had come to see as most important — serve, forehand, net play — Djokovic did well too, but you wouldn’t call them his biggest strengths.

Djokovic turned out to be as great a player as anyone, but maybe the atypical nature of his game created the mistaken impression that deep down, he wasn’t as good as Federer or Nadal, who are more fanatic in their desperation to set themselves up for serve-forehand one-two punches. Djokovic challenged the norm, challenged the existing champions, and he came out on top.

“Challenger” might be the best word to describe Djokovic (no, not referring to the Challenger Tour). The most brutal manifestation of the lack of appreciation for his game has come when large portions of the crowd refuse to cheer for him in big matches despite the stunning tennis he plays. Djokovic is made to challenge them as well as his opponents. He challenged his rivals before overcoming them, and even after reaching #1, he continued to challenge expectations. It feels like a section of the tennis world is telling him you can win as much as you want in whatever way you want, but we still won’t give you credit for it. You can sometimes even see Djokovic himself laughing at the absurdity of it all. After hitting a return winner to save match point against Federer at the U.S. Open in 2011 — not just a history-altering shot, a shot whose historical implications were clear almost immediately — Djokovic had to urge the crowd to applaud because they weren’t initially enthusiastic enough.

This is probably the signature moment of Djokovic’s career. With one shot, he sent who was then universally considered the male GOAT into a tailspin. Federer won all of four points for the rest of the match. Djokovic, meanwhile, amped up the speed on his forehand, winning a pair of lungbusting rallies with winners to break Federer again for 6-5. When Djokovic served for the match and went up 40-15, everyone in the world knew that a second miraculous escape from match point down was impossible. It just wasn’t happening, no chance Djokovic was going to allow it. He powered a first serve to Federer’s backhand, the return floated long, and that was it.

*****

The most fascinating thing about Djokovic’s relationship with the crowd to me isn’t his desire to be liked but the lack of appreciation he sometimes gets for his outrageous tennis. I was rewatching highlights from last year’s U.S. Open recently, and it hit me just how insane Djokovic’s run there was, the final loss notwithstanding. From the third round to the final, he soaked up his opponents’ best tennis, with the opponents getting progressively tougher: Nishikori, Brooksby, Berrettini, Zverev, Medvedev. In retrospect, it’s a testament to Djokovic that most still considered him the favorite going into that last match. In the final, it quickly became evident that something was off — namely, that Djokovic had emptied the tank physically and emotionally — and Medvedev didn’t help matters by playing near-perfect tennis.

Tragically, only when Djokovic fell way behind in the final did the crowd really throw their support behind him. After falling down two sets and two breaks, the deficit was clearly too big to overcome. Djokovic took advantage of some nervy play from Medvedev to snag one break back, then solidly held serve to get back to 4-5. The crowd went nuts. Djokovic grinned a little. He pumped his fist gently. It was badass — like he was reminding everyone watching I might lose this match, but don’t forget the amazing things I can do — but moments later, with the crowd still losing their shit, Djokovic started to sob.

It’s not that the sobbing was any kind of weakness on Djokovic’s part. It was that he had deserved to hear that kind of ovation from the Flushing Meadows crowd when he hit that return winner against Federer in 2011, and when he beat Nadal one round later in a war of long rallies, and when he had beaten Federer in the final in 2015, plus about a dozen more times. But he hadn’t gotten it. When he finally did at the tail end of the 2021 U.S. Open final, it was nice, because that kind of rapturous cheer was long fucking overdue, but there was also an air of melancholy to it all, because Djokovic had been playing such great tennis for such a long time, and this ovation came during an achy loss.

Anyway, it was when rewatching this that I felt really bad for Djokovic. I remembered everything that had led him to that point — winning the Australian Open while working around an ab tear, surviving despite playing terrible tennis by his standards before the semifinals; winning Roland-Garros for just the second time in his career, beating Nadal in a four-hour pulverizing rollercoaster along the way (you should really watch this break point he saved in the third set), then having enough left in the tank to break Tsitsipas’s heart from two sets down in the final; winning Wimbledon without coming close to losing despite playing nowhere near his best; then slogging through the U.S. Open as opponent after opponent threw the kitchen sink at him until he finally wore down. It was a heroic effort, that whole year. Had it been Federer, tennis fans and media alike wouldn’t have stopped drooling until the offseason. Djokovic, though, had to wait until the 28th match of his unbeaten run to get that earth-shaking cheer. Of course he cried; who wouldn’t have cried in that position? Anyone’s desire to be liked becomes painfully apparent when enough people refuse to like them. Djokovic might play tennis like a god, but he feels emotions like a person. It’s merely noticeable because of the way the fans react to him, not the other way around.

*****

Djokovic is, really, the ideal figure to emerge as the GOAT as far as tennis is concerned. Not only is his game without a major weakness, but he is the most clutch of the Big Three. He unfailingly produces his best tennis in the moments in which history swings. He leads his head-to-heads with Federer and Nadal. Since 2011, he’s dominated them. Djokovic has both the tenacity of Nadal and Federer’s ability to thrash the competition for an entire year. He’s figured tennis out in practically every way possible.

The problem with the guy is that he has become one of his own rivals. His self-sabotaging antics have been a thing for a while, but only recently have they started to actively interfere with his tennis. There was the reckless smacking of a ball at the 2020 U.S. Open that hit a lineswoman in the throat. Djokovic had started the year on a monster winning streak. Much was made of the fact that neither Federer nor Nadal was playing at that U.S. Open, but the reality was that Djokovic would have dispatched either one of them easily. He was a huge favorite to win the title, but a reckless act of frustration during a match he was sure to win despite being down a break late in the first set cost him dearly.

Then there was this year’s Australian Open debacle. Djokovic was eventually deported after a legal battle, the unfortunate victim of an attempt to curry political favor, but the fact remains that had he chosen to get vaccinated — and there’s no evidence he had any legitimate reason not to — he would have avoided the entire mess. That Australian Open went to Nadal, who got to claim the glory of breaking Federer’s ATP record of 20 major titles. It could and probably should have been Djokovic, who had gone 27-1 at the majors in 2021 and had won the Australian Open nine times, but he played a part in taking himself out of the running.

To me, Djokovic vs. himself is a far more telling battle than Djokovic vs. the crowd. He is liked by plenty, and if he isn’t liked enough to please some people, who cares? Greatness isn’t a popularity contest. (A popularity contest is, well, a popularity contest.) Look at Djokovic’s numbers: 20 majors, 37 Masters 1000s, 367 weeks at #1 and counting, a 27-23 record against Federer and a 30-28 record against Nadal (both records get better in finals), two or more titles at each of the majors and Masters 1000s, five ATP finals titles… it doesn’t matter if you like him or not. He is great.

All that said, he could be even greater. He’s essentially robbed himself of two golden opportunities at major titles in the last year and a half. With Nadal looking to extend his lead to 22-20 at Roland-Garros, the major title race is far from over. Djokovic doesn’t need that record for his GOAT case — unless Nadal ends with two or three more than him, I think the Serb’s many other records are easily decisive — but it’s a record Djokovic can definitely achieve and probably should have claimed by now. I hope he lets himself reach the heights he’s capable of.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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