While Novak Djokovic is off celebrating a historic French Open title on the weekend, the rest of the world seems to have forgotten how close Djokovic was to having his quest to complete his Career Grand Slam come to a dramatic end. And not even at the hands of an opponent.
Not that it really matters, but in the quarterfinals, Djokovic came to within inches of hitting a linesperson with a racquet that he had thrown. Had that racquet hit the linesperson, Djokovic would have been thrown out of the tournament.
Or would he?
The racquet throwing incident was the third offence committed by Djokovic within a month, and yet the world number one has not been punished for any of them. For that matter, the media and tour seems have simply ignored him. First, there was the incident of him shoving an umpire in Rome, an offence that did not even garner a warning. Next was the Rome final when he bounced a racquet off the court and struck a fan. Both of those incidents should have resulted in code violations, penalties, or even stiffer punishment. And lesser player almost certainly would have been disciplined. But Djokovic walked away with nothing but some minor criticism.
When you look at Novak Djokovic’s behavioural history, he does not land in the same class at Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the men he is now being compared to in the greatest of all time debate. Most other players who behave the way Djokovic does would be the subjects of mass criticism and it would become central to their legacy, but the Serbian has somehow avoided this. Let’s examine the double standard surrounding Novak Djokovic.
On Court Demeanor
Fact: Novak Djokovic has smashed more racquets in 2016 alone than Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have combined in the last 15 years.
That may sound crazy, but when you think about how Federer and Nadal behave on court, it should come as no surprise that they have combined to smash all of one racquet in that time (Federer in Miami in 2009). It is extremely rare that the Swiss shows any temper on court and takes it out on his racquet, while Nadal has never smashed a racquet in his career.
Generally, Federer and Nadal are two of the calmest players on court, embodying the gentlemanliness that is supposed to define tennis. And then there’s Djokovic. The Serb smashes racquet, yells at fans, his coach, and even ball kids, and is not afraid to argue with umpires. Djokovic shows far more negative emotion than positive on court. And he seldom displays the calm, cool, and collected demeanor that his rivals and the greats that he is being compared to do. But is Djokovic considered to be an angry player? Nope.
If an average tennis fan were asked to name an incident involving John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors, it would be easy. But if you asked a fan with anything but strong dislike for Djokovic, you would probably be hard-pressed to name an incident involving the Serb. For whatever reason, when Djokovic behaves poorly on court and does something that would get other players in trouble, he somehow gets with no fuss and the incident is soon forgotten.
Apart from the three incidents during the recent clay court season, which seem to have already been forgotten, Djokovic often seems to be acting a way that should receive some criticism but tends to get forgotten. Let’s look at his history with ball kids. Last year at Wimbledon, the Serb yelled at an innocent ball girl in the fifth set of his round of sixteen match with Kevin Anderson simply out of frustration. Then there’s the famous incident in Miami 2015 when he screamed in the face of a ball boy.
In Djokovic’s defence, in neither of those incidents was he targeting the ball kid. However, it was ignorance on his part not befitting of a champion. And it’s a situation that Federer and Nadal would never have gotten into in the first place because they are far better behaved on court. And while Djokovic received minor criticism due to the Miami incident, but 15 months later, it has largely been forgotten.
And then there are the countless smashed racquets, intentional yelling at umpires and coaches. Essentially whenever Djokovic is losing, you can tell simply by looking at his attitude on court because he always seems to be angry. But is he considered to be an angry player? Nope.
Had Connors or McEnroe done what Djokovic did, they would be remembered for those incidents in the same way that when you think of McEnroe, almost before you think of his seven major titles, you think of “You Cannot Be Serious.” In reality, Djokovic’s behaviour is more synonymous with the bad boys of tennis like McEnroe and Connors rather than the elite company that he has been crammed in with like Federer, Nadal, Borg, and Laver.
The greatest in the history of the game have behaved like greats. There is a stereotype in tennis of the gentlemanly players and they are the champions that tennis fans yearn for. While Djokovic may put up the results equal to those great men, he certainly does not behave like them. However, his results for seem reason seem to justify his bad attitude.
20 years after McEnroe and Connors retired, we remember them as bad boys who yelled at umpires and were generally obnoxious on court. Despite having more in common with these men, Djokovic is being put in the same class as far more respectable players. In 20 years, we’re not going to remember Djokovic for his bad behaviour. He’ll be remembered for his results. What made him so special? Sure, he’s won more. But do the ends justify the means? It’s a misinterpretation of history to say that Djokovic was more like Federer than like McEnroe.
The champion we Deserve?
There can be no denying that Novak Djokovic is a great tennis player. His results more than qualify him as one of the greatest of all time. However, part of why the greats are so great is because they embody the ideals of the sport. A big reason why Federer and Nadal are so beloved is how they behaved on court. Sure, Djokovic is gracious in victory. However, his attitude on court prior to said victory does not make him a good champion.
If you look at the players considered to be the greatest of their generation, Federer, Pete Sampras, Ivan Lendl, Bjorn Borg, part of their appeal is that they are what fans want tennis players to be. They are calm, they are classy, they are the kind of heroes you root for in movies. Novak Djokovic is looking to be the exception to the rule. He has not behaved like a true champion during his matches, especially during his losses. It’s not fair to let Djokovic get off scot free for his behaviour, and his legacy in 20 years should reflect the player he really is. There should not be a double standard for any player, no matter how many big titles they win.