By Aoun Jafarey
I’m not necessarily a fan of yours, but I’m definitely not a hater. I thoroughly enjoy watching you play, but I’ll be honest, that wasn’t always the case.
In 2011, I didn’t like you. It was quite hard to. After all, for the previous five years you had just seemed so content being the best of the rest while playing your part in brilliant matches that often ended with a brilliant outcome for me as a fan — Rafa beat you 14 of the first 18 times you played. The player I always supported and idolized was the one who would come out on top. It was a perfect script but then you flipped it suddenly with absolutely no warning signs of what was to come.
Indian Wells was whatever, I thought. Miami hurt, because I really wanted Rafa to win in Miami and get the monkey off his back. (He was just two points away!) Madrid was annoying because, well, because you’d beaten Rafa on clay for the first time. I knew it would happen someday since you’d been so close before, especially in 2009 on the very same court. Then you did it again in Rome and it was quite scary how you managed to wrap up two titles with two wins over Rafa on clay without dropping a set, or even playing a tiebreak for that matter. Even Federer had never done that. Paris was different, and I expected Rafa to still win there. He did, but it was because you couldn’t beat Roger, which is a different story altogether. Then came Wimbledon and you really laid it on Rafa and it was like well, shit, this guy is no longer just having a good streak, he’s having a career changing year for the ages. Then you did it AGAIN in New York, and this time I watched in agony because the narrative for Nadal was quickly turning back to “he can only win on clay” despite the fact that he had been the defending champion at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open before you took both titles from him. You put together perhaps the greatest run any man ever has between Melbourne and Flushing Meadows. It sucked, especially how the fourth set at the U.S. Open ended so fast given how epic the third set had been. You actually broke Rafa physically. You both kind of went off the rails for the rest of the year, but no one cared because the meat of the season was over. Shanghai, Paris, and the Tour Finals are important, but let’s be honest, most people will agree the season matters much less after the majors are over. Whatever comes after New York is usually the easiest to forget.
Then the year ended, and I thought well, let’s hope 2012 will be different. I made my usual and totally-sane decision to bring my sleep down to 3.5 hours a night so I could wake up and watch the Australian Open every morning at 3:00 a.m. After two weeks of watching finally came the big day, you vs. Rafa, again. I didn’t think anyone could beat Rafa seven times in a row. Surely 2011 was the anomaly, no way this happens again, Rafa was going to win his second Australian Open and then we would just need one more title in New York to get the double career grand slam. Just as I expected, Rafa won the first set — hard fought for sure, but he won it. My hopes were high, I thought only Rafa could win back-to-back marathons. And then it happened. You broke his serve, which tore up the script. Djokovic was only supposed to win the third set, when Rafa had already won the first two sets. Rafa had to get up two sets, then you could win the third and then Rafa would roll you in the fourth and the match would be done. But nope. None of it, you were absolutely having none of it in the second and the third set.
It looked all but done and then Rafa unleashed everything he had in him and he stole the fourth set from you. The two of you put on a show I can still recall even a decade years later without any problems. I remember when your shot went wide on the deuce court side on set point in the fourth and Rafa got down to his knees and celebrated in a manner that would have convinced anyone that he’d won the trophy. The match wasn’t even close to over, all he’d done was taken you to a place you’d never been before. A place where no one had emerged victorious in the past. Rafa had taken you to his den, his dungeon, the prison of attrition. The same place he’d taken Federer to in Rome in 2006, the same place Federer tried to get out of in Wimbledon in 2008 and the same place the two of you found yourselves in on the Caja Mágica in 2009. This was it, the turning point. He broke your serve, he was up 4-2. He had 30-15. Six points. Six damn points was all he needed and that would be it, the streak of losses would be over, and then he had the costliest miss of his career to date. It’s not like he lost the game with that miss, the score still said 30-30, but something changed after the miss, we all felt it. I don’t know what went through your mind at that point but something clicked. You turned the tables on Rafa in his own den. You lived through nearly six hours of suffering, you took the kitchen sink Rafa had thrown at you and returned it with a grand piano on top. You stood there in glory like a gladiator, sweat dripping, exhausted but somehow so elated, so pumped that at least for those of us watching on TV it looked like you’d be able to win another match if you started playing right now. (That of course changed when I saw how difficult it was for both you and Rafa to survive even the speech from the Kia Motors representative that felt longer than the match.)
As I walked back home from my friend’s place, I was frustrated, dejected, just generally pissed off about how that match had unfolded, how Rafa only needed six more points. I actually finally started to respect you. Not like you, respect you. You’d survived the greatest physical challenge I’d ever seen Rafa serve an opponent, and Rafa was always the benchmark of physicality. I thought again to myself that you were just on another level. You had five majors, but most of all you had beaten an existing legend seven times in a row, all seven matches in finals, on all three surfaces to boot. This just doesn’t happen, and you had made it happen.
I usually get inspired from Rafa’s defeats because of the attitude that Rafa brings to the table, which is to move on immediately and focus on doing better at the next opportunity. After the 2012 Australian Open, though, for the first time in my life I was more focused on how Rafa’s opponent had found a win as opposed to how Rafa had lost. I realized then that the respect for you was always going to be there. It was never going to change. (It also helped that after this win, Rafa would go on to beat you six times in your next seven encounters and win three major titles in the process.)
Fast forward to 2015. I had box tickets to watch the men’s final. I came in rooting for Federer to make it to 18. People had been calling for him to retire for two years, which didn’t sit well with me. As if winning a major was as easy as buttering a slice of bread (gluten free might be a little trickier. It usually crumbles more easily). I’d seen you lose the title matches to Murray and Rafa in 2012 and 2013 and also the semifinal loss to the collective effort from Nishikori and the blistering heat in 2014.
But then I finally got to see in person just how unfair the crowd actually could be to you. I hadn’t been to the semis in 2010 or 2011 when you saved match points against Federer, but in 2015 I was here in a seat as good as any sitting by the baseline watching, hearing, and most of all, feeling. I felt bad for you; everyone around me was not just rooting for Federer but rather rooting against you. This was something I’d never seen before in person for any player. In 2013 when you were playing in the final against Rafa, I actually was sitting in a section that had way more fans for you than for Rafa, and the fans were rooting for you or for Rafa, not against either any of you. As you know, there’s a fine but important distinction between those things, to root for one vs. to root against another.
That 2013 final was an amazing experience and your fans were also quite nice at the end. They congratulated me like I was the one who’d won the U.S. Open, and this changed my opinion about a few things. In 2015, though, I distinctly remember the crowd was against you as much as it was in favor of Federer. It was an experience I’ll never forget because in front of my very own eyes I saw you absorb all of that negativity and literally use it as fuel to win. The third set is still something I haven’t been able to figure out. I can’t understand how you didn’t lose that set. Federer was in every single one of your service games. The respect had grown even more at this point. After you won the third set and consolidated the break in the fourth I knew what the result was going to be, I actually walked out so I could get to my car and escape the traffic madness because I was 100% sure you wouldn’t lose the match. Then Fed broke back to make up for one of the breaks and I could hear the stadium roaring all the way from the car park closest to the 7 train. I entertained the thought of a Federer comeback for a minute but after having seen how you won the third I was pretty sure I’d still made the right decision. The rest is history. You closed it out.
In 2016, you won a bunch more titles. At this point it was getting boring, especially after the drubbings you gave to Nadal and Federer at Doha and the Australian Open. That was a ridiculous level and perhaps your best ever. (Though I still think you played your best in 2011.) Anyway, you went on to win the French, you completed the Career Slam at last and then Sam Querrey played the match of his life to stop you from furthering your chances of winning 5 in a row.
In 2017, people wrote you off, but I thought to myself, no, this guy just doesn’t go away like that. Legends don’t just vanish into thin air. Then you lost to Chung in 2018, seemingly more proof of this endless decline. To make matters worse you failed again to make any headway in the Sunshine Double and lost early in both Monte-Carlo and Barcelona. Who knew that all you needed was another match with Rafa? Rome gave you that opportunity (what a tournament Rome has been for you!) and you lost but everything about the encounter showed a different guy than the one who had been losing to players of a lower caliber earlier in the year. What comes next we all know, one of the most critical forehand passing shots in the history of the men’s game as Rafa came in to take to the net when he had a chance to go up a break in the fifth set of possibly the greatest match of the decade (definitely the greatest on Center Court). For a forehand that doesn’t earn the respect it should, that was a heck of a time to pull it off.
To make sure the whole world remembers that it wasn’t a fluke, you then did it again the next year — saving championship point no less — which resulted in the production of not only one of the most iconic moments in all of sport but also one of the most iconic memes ever made as a result of tennis. Speaking of respect, let’s address that a little bit. You don’t get enough of it, which is why I thought of putting my thoughts down in longform to begin with. Why you of all the athletes in the world don’t get the respect that it is so clearly deserved is a question worth trying to answer. My first thought is that you’re not from a country with a large global media or cultural presence, and a country global media is not the kindest to. I grew up in Pakistan, so I can relate to this one. Pakistan hasn’t done a whole lot in the last few decades to produce a more positive image of itself to the rest of the world, but global media has done its part to make sure the trend on the outlook towards Pakistan remains downward nonetheless, Serbia seems to be in the same category. This obviously isn’t your problem or fault and in a better world it shouldn’t impact the way you are perceived, but alas, we don’t live in that world, not yet at least, and unfortunately you suffer for it.
The other problem is the alliances you may have had over the years. Like your friend who was selling his snake oil on your Instagram live, these affiliations don’t help anyone. Again, not really your fault, you’re a tennis player not a scientist and your opinions outside of tennis shouldn’t matter when you’re walking on court but since people are…well, people, we can’t separate things.
Then you refused to take the vaccine. That’s fine, it’s your right. We’re hopefully towards the end of the pandemic but I guess it didn’t help that you got lapped up by anti-vax groups as someone to look up to without you having actually ever stated that you were anti-vaccination. Anyway, you have your opinions, a lot of us have ours, we don’t always have to agree with each other, but we should still be able to be civil. But I’m not going to pretend like this did you many favors. It did the opposite and you know this by now. At the end of the day it’s okay and we need to move on. You’re not going around telling other people to not get vaccinated or deny the pandemic, you just didn’t want to take the shot yourself. You have your reasons and there’s no rule that says they have to be rational. The idea that people only make rational decisions couldn’t be further from the truth. Just ask all of us who have probably collectively wasted years of our lives on platforms like Twitter. Not much rational decision making happening there.
Then there are the alliances that you don’t get a choice in. Look, your father has made some controversial statements and given that anything he says is automatically associated with you whether you like it or not, your reputation suffers for them. It is what it is, it’s really up to the public to not respond to those things but you know what, I get where he’s coming from. You’ve never been given the respect you deserve, your father is clearly very proud of who you are, and why shouldn’t he be? He should also be proud of himself, he managed to raise all of you through a war, save you, and get you to where you are. Mathematically or logically, that’s probably not supposed to happen. You’re not supposed to survive a war as a child and extreme situations and then be able to become world number one for seven years and counting in one of the most difficult sports in the world to be successful in. It’s essentially a miraculous journey and as a new parent, my perspective on your father in particular has changed a lot. I actually hope that I’m able to do as well as he has, which is to help their child live their dreams.
All in all, what I really hoped to convey is that if you ignore the two extremes that end up being most vocal:
A. Those who agree with everything you do
B. Those who hate everything you do
You get left with what is most likely the majority of people when it comes to their opinion on you, (just don’t run a poll on Twitter, it’s nothing like the rest of the world). which are the people who watch tennis, love tennis and as a result have an abundance of respect for you because of everything that you have given tennis. The moments of magic, the down the line backhands with the extended grunt to follow as an indication of you knowing that you’ve made an incredible get that your opponent will not forget for the next few nights (or ever), saving championship points and whatnot. You are perhaps technically the most gifted player of your time. Yeah you don’t have Rafa’s biceps or Roger’s flair, but along with your technique you have this attitude that separates you from the rest.
You remind me of an eagle. Why the eagle? What an eagle does when a storm arises? It flies above the clouds using the energy from the storm. It should come as no surprise to anyone then that you are indeed the eagle of men’s tennis given all the storms you’ve navigated: the press, the crowds, the rivals, and the false perceptions. Once again, you’re going through a period of turbulence. It may be the most challenging of your career to date because it doesn’t stem from problems that you can control the root cause of, like your service motion or diet, or the problem with your overhead smash. (I like that even you have some human characteristics on court with the racket, so I’d be okay with the Djokosmash persisting.) This is a storm like you haven’t faced before, but I have no doubt in the ability of Novak Djokovic to once again be an eagle and ride straight into the storm, challenge it, and eventually rise above it. See you above the clouds.
A Nadal fan
5 thoughts on “A Letter to Novak Djokovic”
Can you make it a joint letter from my side too? As a Nadal fan, I agree with everything you said. Sure, I disagree with his beliefs about vaccines and other stuff, he deserves respect for what he has achieved, at least on the Tennis court. Really disappointed with the French crowd this year, too.
Always happy to rephrase this as from “lots of Nadal fans around the world”
Such wonderful expression of your thoughts! As a complicated tennis fan I could relate to each and every one of your emotions. Note I’m a lifelong Federer fan, but have real respect for both Novak and Rafa. Rafa is the biggest inspiration as much as he’s not my #1 supportee. keep writing “)
wow very nice writing; metaphor!
who would ever forget those 40-15’s; poor Roger?
that was an eagle rising above the storm!!
I really hope he gets to read this. It is really such a good letter.