How Novak Djokovic Became an Accidental Villain

As he tries to make history at the U.S. Open, can he finally make friends with the fans?

A black-and-white photo of Novak Djokovic celebrating at a tennis match
Simon Bruty / Anychance / Getty

About the author: Michael Steinberger is a journalist.

Despite the Delta variant, the U.S. Open, which started yesterday in New York, is going ahead at full capacity, and more than 700,000 people are expected to attend the two-week tournament. A packed Arthur Ashe Stadium will provide the answer to one of the bigger questions hanging over the Open: Will this finally be the moment when tennis fans embrace Novak Djokovic?

The 34-year-old Djokovic, who plays his first-round match tonight, is on the cusp of achieving not one but two milestones. If he wins the Open, it will be his 21st grand-slam singles title, breaking the record that he currently shares with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It will also mean that he will have captured all four majors in 2021, completing a calendar grand slam, the rarest feat in tennis. Only five singles players have ever done it; the last was Steffi Graf in 1988. With his winning record against both Federer and Nadal, Djokovic already has a compelling claim to being the greatest male tennis player of all time. But a victory at the Open would cement it.

Yet, for all his success on the court, Djokovic has been unable to win the one thing that he seems to covet as much as any trophy: the affection of tennis fans. Sure, he has supporters, some of them very passionate. For the most part, though, the Serb has spent his career being the other guy, the player whom spectators are not cheering for—or are actively rooting against.

The nub of the problem—Djokovic’s original sin, if you will—is that he intruded on the Federer-Nadal rivalry and ultimately usurped both players. In the mid-to-late-2000s, Federer and Nadal were the game’s dominant figures, and had also become among the most revered champions it had ever known.

Djokovic was cast as the third man, the spoiler, the interloper. It didn’t help that his game lacked the balletic grace of Federer’s and the bravura of Nadal’s; tennis aesthetes found his style clinical and dull, which made his victories over the Swiss and the Spaniard all the more intolerable.

Some sports stars relish being the villain, or at least don’t seem to mind it. Ivan Lendl, who was the No. 1 ranked player for much of the 1980s, was widely seen as a dour automaton who drained the game of its artistry, and the crowds were almost always against him. In 1986, Sports Illustrated put Lendl on its cover with the headline “The Champion That Nobody Cares About.” But Lendl seemed indifferent to his public image: He played to win titles, not fans, and while he didn’t necessarily enjoy being the heavy, he made little effort to bring the audience around.

Djokovic, by contrast, wants to be the crowd favorite. He never puts it quite so bluntly; he simply acknowledges that he would enjoy having the fans on his side. But in the locker room, it is common knowledge that he craves the adoration lavished on Federer and Nadal. In an interview a while back, the Australian player Nick Kyrgios said that Djokovic had “a sick obsession with wanting to be liked. Like he wants to be like Roger.” Kyrgios’s opinion is widely shared, if not usually expressed with such contempt (Kyrgios, as you might gather, is not a Djokovic enthusiast).

Early in his career, Djokovic tried to win over fans by entertaining them. He would do impersonations of other players—Nadal picking at his wedgie, that sort of thing. He was playful with the crowd: Egged on by fans during an exhibition match in England some years ago, he turned a shirt change into a mock strip tease. But Djokovic the ham could never convert the laughter into love, and eventually he started appealing more directly for affection. After winning matches, he would walk to the center of the court and extend his hands outward from his chest in a big swooping motion, pivoting to each section of the stadium and repeating the gesture.

The fans have refused to give him their hearts in return. When he’s playing against Federer in particular, they have been downright hostile. When the two met in the 2015 U.S. Open final, the crowd lustily cheered Djokovic’s miscues (there weren’t all that many—the Serb won in four sets). During a press conference at Wimbledon earlier this summer, Djokovic conceded that he is almost never the people’s choice. “It is a fact that I play 90 percent of my matches, if not more than that, against the opponent, but against the stadium as well,” he said. “Places where I get more support than my opponent are rare.”

Djokovic hasn’t always helped his cause. He has a temper, and his outbursts can be ugly. He was disqualified from last year’s U.S. Open after smacking a ball in frustration and accidentally hitting a line judge. Just a few weeks ago, at the Tokyo Olympics, he smashed one racket in frustration and hurled another into the (fortunately empty) stands. Over the years he has been criticized for sexist comments. In the past, he was an obnoxious winner. After capturing the 2012 Australian Open, he ripped off his shirt, pounded his chest, and bellowed maniacally. I’ve interviewed Djokovic several times, and while he is bright and inquisitive, he has some loopy ideas that he doesn’t always keep to himself. During an online chat last year, he suggested that positive energy could purify water. In another, he outed himself as an anti-vaxxer. (In that, he is not alone: A scandal at this year’s U.S. Open is the large number of players who remain unvaccinated.)

Even his good deeds tend to backfire. Last year, after the tour shut down because of COVID-19, Djokovic organized a series of charity exhibition tournaments in the Balkans. But it turned into a super-spreader fiasco. Djokovic and his wife both caught the coronavirus, as did a handful of others. While Federer appears to walk on water, Djokovic can’t seem to avoid stepping on rakes.

None of this has hurt his tennis. If anything, he has channeled the crowd’s antagonism into competitive resilience—he’s probably the grittiest player of all time. The fact that he has done so much winning with so many rooting against him casts his achievements in an even more flattering light.

What’s impressive, too, is that he rarely returns the animus. Yes, he can get surly if a crowd rides him especially hard. In general, however, he keeps whatever frustration and resentment he feels to himself. For an athlete who yearns for affection, the unwillingness of fans to show him any must be torture. In 2019, Djokovic beat Federer to win Wimbledon. The spectators had been avidly pro-Federer, of course, and after the match, Djokovic was asked how he had coped with that. “When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger,’ I hear ‘Novak,’” he said. “It sounds silly, but it is like that. I try to convince myself that it’s like that.”

Now that he is on the verge of accomplishing the greatest twofer in tennis history, might Djokovic finally hear real rather than imagined chants of “Novak”? It will probably help that Federer and Nadal are not playing in the Open; both are injured. If they were in the tournament, their quest to trip up Djokovic, to spoil things for the spoiler, would probably command a lot of headlines, and it is not hard to imagine what the prevailing sentiment in the stands would be. But in their absence, the spotlight will be squarely on Djokovic, and perhaps the New York fans will at last give him his due and rally behind him. As much as Djokovic wants to complete the calendar slam and break the record for most majors, the crowd’s embrace would surely be the sweetest victory of all.