Tuesday, 9 June 2015

I wonder what’s worse for Novak Djokovic – not winning the French Open or not being loved

At the end of Sunday’s utterly rivetting French Open final, the fickle French spectators accorded the loser, Novak Djokovic, the sort of extended bout of applause more commonly associated with classical music concerts or speeches by dictators. It went on forever, eventually reducing him to tears. Given that the Roland Garros crowd have never taken the Serb to their hearts, what was going on?

Partly, it was, I think, an apology. Djokovic craves the sort of displays of mass affection routinely enjoyed by Federer and Nadal. Even the scowling, surly, sweary Scot, Andy Murray, receives more love than the far more successful Serbinator. The French had sullenly withheld their approval for two long weeks from a player going for a well-deserved career grand slam (i.e. winning all four majors, but not in the same year) and who had been widely tipped to achieve the first calendar grand slam since Rod laver in 1969 (i.e. winning all four majors between 1st January and 31st December): and now they were saying sorry for being mean. I think they may also have been moved by the extraordinarily sporting way in which this gracious champion had accepted defeat just a few minutes earlier.

Djokovic’s failure to win the love of the tennis audience has nothing to do with his personality: he’s enormously civilised, articulate, well-mannered and personable. Early in his career he tended be a bit of a whiner and a quitter, but there hasn’t been a hint of that for at least six years. I think it’s more to do with his playing style, which, in its ruthless, metronomic efficiency, is distinctly Germanic. He doesn’t have the best serve, backhand or forehand in the game. Nor is he the best volleyer, and when he scampers to pick up a drop-shot, he invariably goes cross-court. What he does better than anyone else is to hit the lines, again and again, remorselessly pinning his opponent behind the baseline. He rarely does anything unexpected – but he does the expected better than anyone else. Accuracy is his watch-word – and accuracy doesn’t thrill: after a while, in fact, it begins to grate. In his match against Andy Murray, I ended up regularly shouting, "Miss, you bastard!" at the TV set during the final set.

Stan Wawrinka, who always reminds me of a burly, bedraggled WWII partisan fighter who may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer but has the strength of a bull, is a maddeningly inconsistent player – you just never know whether he’s going to tank or simply take your breath away. On Sunday, he was in breath-removal mode. During the last three sets, his forehand was anawesome pile-driver of a shot, and his one-handed backhand down the line - possibly the most exciting shot in modern tennis – had the audience constantly gasping in disbelief. It was the sort of thrilling display that brings tears to the eyes. It’s not that Djokovic can’t pull off these sorts of shots in extremis – he once saved two match points against Federer at the US Open with two stunning cross-court forehands and went on to win the match – it’s just that the rest of his game is too measured, almost too perfect, too robotic.

In some ways, Djokovic reminds me of the England cricket captain Alastair Cook, who recently became this country’s leading international run and century-maker. Like everyone else, I admire Cook’s efficiency – but his style makes it hard to warm to him. When Ben Stokes smashed his buccaneering century against New Zealand at Lord's a few weeks ago, the camera cut to a female spectator in tears just after he'd reached it – it was that spirit-liftingly brilliant. It’s hard to imagine anyone – except possibly the opposition – bursting into tears of awed appreciation at a Cook century.

I’m an admirer of Djokovic. I wanted him to achieve his career grand slam on Sunday. If he’d managed it, I’d have applauded, but I wouldn’t have been in tears. I wasn’t even in tears when he pulverised Nadal in the quarters – something I’ve waited six years to see. When Wawrinka won two days ago by playing out of his freaking skull and pulling off a whole series of stunning, unexpected, joyous, glorious, heart-stopping winners, I had to hastily dry my eyes before my wife came in to find out what all the fuss was about.

Bad luck, Novak – you don’t make tennis fans cry (except, obviously, in Serbia). I guess you’ll just have to settle for admiration – and a shedload of titles - rather than love. But there are worse fates.


  1. A marvellous summing-up of a quite wonderful contest. I would add that once Djokovic had discovered his gluten sensitivity (and acted upon it) a few years ago, his iron will began to be matched to seemingly superhuman physical endurance and he left the petulance behind. It is not that many years ago that the silky skills of R Federer were disfigured by racquet throwing and profanity; he dumped the tantrums and became, probably, the best we have seen.
    Winning (at the highest level) is something that Stan the Man has only just figured out I feel. Relatively late in (tennis) life, out of the shadow of RF, and on the small side at just six foot, he will kick-on from here and grab at least another couple of big ones to go with the Australian and French he now has. A sublime back-hand, a demonic serve, and he volleys well. Link that collection to a 'locked-in' temperament and, well, what's not to like.
    Murray would do well to look at both these men closely. Forget the looking up at the 'team' at times of stress; forget the surly ways of old; try to balance attack and forward motion with your great defence a bit better than you have done; and have a go at getting the (non-British) crowd on your side - it can be worth a few points.

    1. Thank you very much, mahlerman.

      Was it you who revealed you once had high hopes of Cilic breaking through? If so, congratulations on him winning last year's US Open. If Monfils could get his brain in order for two weeks and stop his constant showboating, there's nothing to stop him emulating Cilic and winning a major - he's certainly sufficiently athletic and talented, and it would be shame if the French, having produced so many top-flight tennis players in the past seven or eight years didn't end up with at least one slam.

      I've no idea whether Stan will ever win another slam. You could be right and he'll bag another couple. But isn't it a relief that we can actually conceive of players other than the Big Four winning majors, rather than simply waiting for the usual suspects to end up in every final?

      A Murray vs. Wawrinka Wimbledon final, with Dimitrov and Monfils as the beaten semi-finalists (in two five-set matches) would do very nicely.