Being Unpopular is Novak Djokovic’s Secret Weapon


Being Unpopular is Novak Djokovic’s Secret Weapon

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

The great tragedy of Novak Djokovic’s tennis career is that for every memory we will have of his surgical precision, superhuman athleticism, and bottomless appetite for trophies, we’ll also have another of Djokovic jawing with the umpire, or the crowd, or both. The Serb has become synonymous with on-court excellence over the past decade, but he has also become unwaveringly associated with on-court angst.Does Djokovic thrive on conflict and adversity? After watching him win a truckload of matches with his back against the wall, it’s hard to answer that with anything but a resounding yes. But does Djokovic crave conflict and adversity too? That’s where we get into the truly fascinating part.

On Sunday, in the Australian Open final against Dominic Thiem, Djokovic bagged the first without needing to produce anything close to his best. But after being slapped with two time violations in a row by the umpire in the second set, he missed a regulation forehand and handed Thiem the break, eventually losing it 4-6.

As expected, he launched into a tirade against the umpire, before spending the next half hour in what can only be described as a lifeless swoon, looking as though he would rather be anywhere but on the court. He soon lost the third set 2-6, and went a break point down at the start of the fourth. In other words, he had reached the point of no return, the moment where the stress levels were at their highest. And that was all he needed, really. In what has become a trademark for him, Djokovic played his best tennis only after reaching his lowest point, and eventually walked out a winner in five sets.

We’ve known for a while now that Djokovic is at his most authoritative when he is on the edge. Even though he has a reputation of being robotic with his style of play, the Serb has made it a habit of doing something extraordinary – something quintessentially human – only when he is pushed to the brink. 

But does Djokovic crave conflict and adversity too?

It’s a trait he shares with fellow all-time great Serena Williams, but for her the conflict is mostly internal. Williams needs to get mad at herself to produce her best, while Djokovic seemingly needs to get mad at everyone around him.

And he has plenty of opportunities to get mad. From New York and Indian Wells to London and Paris and now Melbourne, fans everywhere seem united in their willingness to heckle Djokovic. Their loud booing during his matches against Roger Federer in particular can get so morale-crushing that there have been calls to ban Federer fans from stadiums altogether.

But it’s not just the Federer fans. The Nadal fans, the neutrals, even the Thiem fans – none of them seem enamored by Djokovic’s affinity for strife, and they spare no effort in making their disapproval known. Many claim there is something about Djokovic’s looking-for-trouble demeanor that rubs people the wrong way. But even if that were true, the widespread anti-Djokovic sentiment seems totally disproportionate, and perhaps a product of mob mentality; people don’t just root for his opponents, they actively root against him.

After a point, he has to get tired of fighting against all that groundswell of negativity. And yet, he always gets back up, using the negativity as fuel to redline his serve and super-charge his groundstrokes, showing everyone that their hate only makes him stronger.


Djokovic’s relationship with the crowds is almost symbiotic: they love to hate him, and he loves to respond to their hate.

Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Feeding off the audience’s scorn is something shares with a contemporary prodigy like himself, albeit from a different sport. For a good chunk of his career, Virat Kohli seemed perpetually in a state of war with the world too. He screamed at boorish spectators, hit back at journalists who so much as doubted his strategic thinking, and even used social media to voice his displeasure at a whole host of things. But his on-field exploits got increasingly impressive with each new conflict; the anger made him more determined to succeed, and eventually put him on the path to greatness.

Kohli has considerably mellowed down in recent times, and now seems capable of bringing his best irrespective of whether he is fired up or not. But it is unclear if he would’ve reached this stage if he wasn’t playing a team sport.

It’s tougher to remain mad at everything when you have teammates to support and joke around with. Years of playing with friendly companions would have taught Kohli that when he is at the crease and on the verge of boiling over, there is always someone who can help him calm down.

Who does Djokovic have when he’s out there on the court? An unfriendly opponent an unsympathetic umpire, and an uncharitable crowd. He’s basically all alone, and it’s no surprise he reacts the only way his instincts would dictate: by lashing out.

For those who express their dislike for Djokovic vocally – in stadiums, in the media, on Twitter – it must feel like the ultimate comeuppance that his lashing out usually leads to Slam wins. The Serb now has 17 of them, just two short of Nadal and three short of Federer’s record number, and it seems like a matter of time before he surpasses them both. 

He always gets back up, using the negativity as fuel to redline his serve and super-charge his groundstrokes

In that sense, the haters might also take cold comfort in the fact that they have become an important part of history. Just as Federer and Nadal made Djokovic a better player with their unflinching tennis, so have the naysayers’ unkind words forced the Serb to wake up and take charge of his own destiny.

Djokovic’s relationship with the crowds is almost symbiotic: they love to hate him, and he loves to respond to their hate. It makes you wonder why he has spent so many years struggling to win the fans’ affection and lamenting the lack of support he gets from them. 

If looking for trouble is what gets his competitive juices flowing, why not keep looking for it? He’s only getting closer to GOAT-hood with each altercation, after all.