Djokovic’s extraordinary success at Melbourne Park, where he is 8-0 in finals, has never seen him supported with the enthusiasm that Australian fans have long felt for the less polarising and beloved Roger Federer, in particular, or Rafael Nadal.
Federer and Nadal also have taken a more conciliatory approach to tennis politics within the men’s game, where Djokovic has been aggressive in pushing for a higher share of prizemoney for players – leading to the foundation of his PTPA organisation, in which he and Canadian Vasek Pospisil are co-presidents.
Djokovic courted criticism, too, for the extensive bill of requests he made to the Open organisers during the pre-tournament quarantine period, a stance that was in contrast to Nadal’s view that the players were lucky to be playing at all given the broader context of a pandemic that had exerted a terrible human toll, and that Australia had been a standout performer in combating COVID-19.
“Seeing the image of a guy who has a big heart and good intentions kicked around like a trash can does not sit well with me.”
McNamee even defended Djokovic’s controversial tennis exhibition tour of the Balkans last year in which he and others were infected with coronavirus – an outcome that prompted Aussie Nick Kyrgios to unload on Djokovic more than once, attacks that McNamee admits hurt Djokovic’s standing in tennis.
Having said he did not respect Kyrgios off the court, Djokovic declined last week to respond to Kyrgios’ subsequent comments, that Djokovic was “a very strange cat”, and “a heck of a tennis player, but unfortunately someone’s partying with his shirt off during a pandemic. I don’t know if I can take any slack from that man.”
“It’s hurt him significantly,” said McNamee of the Adria tour that Djokovic organised in Serbia and Croatia. But McNamee, who is coaching Taiwan’s leading female player Hsieh Su-wei (beaten by Naomi Osaka in this year’s quarter-finals), said Kyrgios was entitled to his say, but that the Australian player’s comments had hurt Djokovic.
“His personality does rub Aussies up the wrong way,” McNamee admitted. “Seeing the image of a guy who has a big heart and good intentions kicked around like a trash can does not sit well with me.”
Djokovic also found trouble at the US Open last year when he struck a ball in frustration, collecting a line judge in the throat, and forcing Djokovic to be defaulted.
“His image has been smashed. I accept that,” said McNamee. “It doesn’t mean it’s fair and it doesn’t mean his intentions aren’t good.” McNamee said “tennis wasn’t on the map until the Adria tour”, which also was “intended to unite people in the Balkans”.
The Balkans event, widely condemned for a lack of social distancing, was abandoned after marquee player Grigor Dimitrov tested positive to COVID-19. Players Borna Coric, Viktor Troicki, then Djokovic and his wife also subsequently tested positive, Djokovic having hosted a party with his shirt off. McNamee said Djokovic had apologised and donated $US3 million to COVID-19 causes.
McNamee subscribes to the view that Djokovic, viewed as an interloper in the Rafa-Roger bromance – the long-time rival pair having formed an alliance within the game – suffered because of his Serbian background. “Geopolitics matters.”
Djokovic’s coach, the noted eccentric and 2001 Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, told a tennis podcast last year: “He’s not going to be Swiss, he’s not going to be Spanish … Generally when you say ‘Balkan’, people look at you different.”
McNamee observed: “For a Serb to have a Croatian coach is amazing, that’s unheard of. That’s a statement in itself.”
Broadly, tour insiders say the Djokovic push within tennis has centred on two issues: the balance of power between the players and the tournaments, and second, the distribution of money. Djokovic’s position is essentially that the players are entitled to both a greater say and share.
The ATP passed a rule, as McNamee noted, that barred a player from being an ATP representative if he belonged to an organisation that was in potential conflict with the tour. In practice, this meant that Djokovic couldn’t represent the players via the ATP. “It’s outrageous that the players don’t decide who of their peers represent them,” said McNamee, who reckoned the Serb had “at least 50 per cent of the top 100″ supporting him.
This bureaucratic obstacle did not stop Djokovic from launching his own players’ outfit, just as COVID-19 didn’t stop him from organising his ill-fated Balkan tour, and that an abdominal injury – extent unspecified – hasn’t halted his progress to his ninth final at Melbourne Park. “The love affair keeps going,” Djokovic said after his semi-final dismissal of Aslan Karatsev.
But Djokovic doesn’t need our love. Federer loves the game, and the game returns that affection. Nadal loves to compete. Defiant Djokovic likes to prove everyone wrong – a belligerence shown when he smacks his fist into his chest after claiming points that matter. One tennis insider, who knows Novak, recalls watching him extinguish a rampant Federer in the 2015 US Open final, in the face of a typically pro-Federer crowd, describing his mindset thus: “I will show you. I will not be beaten.”
Djokovic said after his semi-final: “The more I win, the better I feel coming back each year.” Whether it’s a say in the game’s direction, control of the locker room or grand slam titles (17), there’s never a limit for the insatiable Novak Djokovic.
Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age.