Wimbledon is Roger Federer’s place. Roland Garros belongs to Rafael Nadal.
Flushing Meadows is anyone’s but Novak Djokovic’s, despite him winning three US Opens there. They booed him mercilessly after he played the heel against Andy Roddick in 2008, then again when he retired last year against Stan Wawrinka.
Djokovic’s loving home was meant to be Melbourne Park, given that he is the Australian Open’s undisputed king with a record eight titles; the latest added on Sunday night.
Not so, apparently. Not even when Federer and Nadal aren’t there.
Djokovic was incredulous on Sunday as his final against Dominic Thiem unfolded. The defending champion was a heavy favourite, so perhaps the crowd was initially barracking for Thiem in the name of a decent contest.
Yet barrack for the Austrian they did, and continued to do so as Thiem flirted with victory. It was by no means an anti-Djokovic crowd at Rod Laver Arena; he got strong support from pockets of raucous Serbian fans and was well-received after his victory.
But it was clear that most fans were pulling for Thiem, a first-time finalist in Melbourne. That a great champion was still fighting to win the crowd – at the scene of his most prolific triumph, against a relative rookie – was astonishing.
“Shut the f— up!” Djokovic screamed after the second point at 4-4, just after Thiem had consolidated a break-back. He was referring to a fan yelling out when he nearly hit a ball long during the rally, but his discontent also ran deeper.
“Novak is fuming at the crowd right now. He doesn’t want them speaking in play and frankly, that’s just a manifestation of them going so blatantly for Dominic Thiem,” dual Australian Open champion Jim Courier said on Nine’s commentary.
“They’re fully, fully supportive of the Austrian right now and the seven-time champion is having a hard time understanding that, it seems like.”
Dual major winner Lleyton Hewitt noted on Nine that Djokovic was “struggling to deal with it”. Courier said that being the crowd “villain” against Federer at Wimbledon last year was one thing, but against Thiem in Melbourne was something else entirely.
“He knew that was coming. He was ready for it,” Courier said.
“He’s the man here. He’s dominated this tournament.
“Dominic Thiem is playing his first final here and the whole room is going for the Austrian and that’s not something I think Novak was expecting.”
Djokovic has words with the umpire in the Australian Open final
Former Australian player Sam Groth, sitting courtside for Nine, said that Thiem’s support grew as Djokovic raced to a 4-1 lead. Fans were perhaps fearful of a straight sets blow-out, as the Serbian delivered against Nadal the previous year.
Groth believed that Djokovic made the situation worse by so clearly demonstrating his displeasure; his disbelief that he was not their preferred man.
“Novak doesn’t love the way that this crowd is reacting right now,” Groth said.
“The crowd, they really turned on Novak when he turned on them. Things were starting to unravel there and he showed frustration towards the box and the crowd.”
Djokovic sarcastically blasted umpire Damien Dumusois over a time violation that cruelled his second set, even patting the official’s shoes. He called a medical time out as the third set slipped away. Neither helped his fortunes with the crowd.
Djokovic wins classic Australian Open final
Courier recalled how during the 2019 Wimbledon final win over Federer, Djokovic used a mind trick. When the crowd chanted ‘Roger’, the Serbian simply told himself that they were yelling ‘Novak’.
It must have been galling to find himself in a similar situation against Thiem, who has never won a major. There was some jeering. There were none of the scattered boos from the All England Club, but neither did he command the greatest cheers.
What did bear similarity to Wimbledon was Djokovic’s reaction to winning. There were no wild celebrations. He bent down to touch the court, as though he were again plucking a blade of All England Club grass to eat. The look on his face said, ‘Stuff you, I won anyway’, before it melted into a smile for his close-knit team.
“A look of triumph, a look of defiance in some ways from this champion,” Courier said, adding that Djokovic could not have felt as though he’d been afforded due respect.
“The crowd got involved – got into Novak’s head a little bit.”
Djokovic’s eight Australian Open championships match Federer’s number of titles at Wimbledon. A measure of parity, yet not in the hearts of the masses. He cut a circumspect figure in the post-match ceremony; though he also had heavier thoughts on his mind, including the death of “mentor” and NBA icon Kobe Bryant.
Djokovic played Federer in the semi-finals three days earlier. He made fairly short work of his hobbled rival, winning in straight sets, meaning the crowd was never a major factor. ‘Nole’ still copped grief for celebrating points during the match, even though the big-swinging Federer remained a clear and present danger. Aussies love Federer, a six-time Open champion, as much as anyone.
Djokovic’s plight isn’t fair. Popularity contests rarely are. Djokovic’s greatest crime against tennis fans is that he’s not Federer or Nadal. He’s an admirable ambassador for the sport, in his own right. A magnificent player who has had the better of Roger and Rafa many times, leading both on career head-to-head … but hey, three’s a crowd.
Playing a rare final that was not against Federer or Nadal, Djokovic might have expected his moment of undisputed devotion; especially given his standing as the Australian Open’s greatest champion. It was not to be.
The Serbian may ultimately have the last laugh. By claiming his 17th Grand Slam, he gained further ground on Federer (20) and Nadal (19) in the all-time majors race. At 32, he is both younger and healthier than Roger (38) and Rafa (33). He looks the smart tip to finish atop, which would give him the strongest claim in the Greatest Of All Time debate.
Nick Kyrgios delivered the most damning verdict of Djokovic last year, infamously saying: “I just feel like he has a sick obsession with wanting to be liked. He just wants to be like Roger. I feel like he just wants to be liked so much that I just can’t stand him.”
The consensus has become that Djokovic is less popular than Federer and Nadal because he so clearly covets that popularity. The more he strives to be liked, the less likable be has become. It’s a tough criticism, but perhaps with a kernel of truth.
Clearly, the relatively lack of adoration hurts Djokovic. But just as plainly, it does not stop him from winning.
And maybe entirely too much is made of it. Beneath Djokovic’s exterior, sometimes derided as soft, is a historic champion forged by true hardship as a child.
He explained post-match how his past shaped his future, when asked how on earth the Big Three had managed to win a combined 56 majors between 2003 and 2020.
“It’s hard to speak on behalf of Rafa and Roger. I obviously have utmost respect for these guys and admiration for who they are and what they have achieved and how they go about things on and off the court,” Djokovic said.
“I can speak on my own behalf. I think we all had different trajectories in our lives, we all grew up in different circumstances and different countries and different upbringing. My upbringing was in Serbia, during several wars during 90s.
“Difficult time. Embargo in our country where we had to wait in line for bread and milk and water and some basic things in life. These kinds of things that make you stronger and make you hungrier for success, I think, in whatever you choose to do.
“That probably has been my foundation, the very fact that I came from literally nothing and difficult life circumstances, together with my family and my people. Going back to that and reminding myself where I came from always inspires me, motivates me to push even harder.
“That’s probably one of the reasons why I manage to find that extra gear or necessary mental strength to overcome challenges when they present themselves.”
Serbian fans gave Djokovic an incredible reception in Sydney, during the latter stages of the ATP Cup. That was after he arrived in Australia speaking of his love affair with the country. He was clearly delighted by the unconditional support.
Melbourne, though it yielded another major trophy, perhaps broke his heart a little. If Djokovic is not the beloved figure of an Australian Open, even without Federer or Nadal on the court, perhaps he will never feel the affection enjoyed by his rivals at the Slams.
That seems to be his fate. The cold truth.
No matter how many majors he wins.
For the Slam race, the battle to be the G.O.A.T., looms over everything with the Big Three. And the irony of Djokovic’s plight is that the more successful he is, the more polarising he becomes.
While he’s chasing down Federer and Nadal, he’s increasingly feared.
If, or when, he passes Roger and Rafa, he may become resented. Begrudgingly respected, sure, but still loved only by his diehard fans.