Why Do People Hate Novak Djokovic?
Serbian superstar Novak Djokovic has earned more money playing tennis than any other player in history ($175.3 million as of September 2023), with almost as much in endorsements in that same time. He has won 24 Grand Slam singles titles since turning pro in 2003, more than any other men's player. Djokovic is four major wins ahead of Roger Federer and two ahead of Rafael Nadal's 22 titles as the career Grand Slams leader.
Somehow, there's still something missing. Djokovic isn't beloved like his contemporaries, including Federer and Nadal, or even his predecessors, none of whom can match his accomplishments.
So how did we get to this place with Novak Djokovic? How did perhaps the greatest tennis player of all time become one of the most disliked athletes of all time?
The Perfect Villain at the Perfect Time
To many tennis fans, the era in which Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal co-dominated the sport represents the greatest tennis era of all time.
Enter Novak Djokovic, who crashed the party when he broke a streak of 11 consecutive Grand Slam singles finals won by either Federer or Nadal and won the 2008 Australian Open at just 20 years old. Djokovic took down Federer in the semifinals and unseeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the finals.
It was the first of a record nine Australian Open titles for Djokovic. But as the saying goes, three's a crowd.
The Greatest Season of All Time?
It was probably telling that Novak Djokovic had perhaps the greatest single tennis season of all time in 2011, and his popularity didn't take the meteoric leap it should have.
That doesn't take away from what Djokovic accomplished that year, winning 10 tournaments and three Grand Slam singles titles at the Australian Open, U.S. Open and Wimbledon. In 2011, Rafael Nadal lost to Djokovic in the finals at six different tournaments on three different surfaces and gave the most succinct evaluation of how well his counterpart performed.
"It was probably the highest level of tennis that I ever saw," Nadal said.
'Nole Slam' Didn't Quite Track
Sports fans around the world know what the "Tiger Slam" is — a term coined when golfer Tiger Woods won all four golf majors in a row. It became synonymous with Woods' career and accomplishments.
Guess what? Novak Djokovic did the same thing in 2016, when he won the French Open to make him the reigning champion in all four Grand Slam tournaments, an accomplishment the media quickly dubbed the "Nole Slam" — Nole is Novak Djokovic's nickname from childhood.
"Nole Slam" didn't exactly enter the sports lexicon, despite Djokovic becoming the first tennis player in history to pass $100 million in career earnings.
Refusal to Deal With Reality
It was obvious to everyone watching Novak Djokovic play over the final part of 2016 and the first half of 2017 he was dealing with an elbow injury that was impacting his play in major ways. Obvious to everyone but Djokovic.
The Joker cleaned house, refusing to accept the reality of his elbow injury and placing the blame on his support staff. First, he fired coach Boris Becker after the 2016 season. Then, after a slow start to the 2017 season, Djokovic fired another coach, Marian Vajda, fitness specialist Gebhard Phil-Gritsch and physiotherapist Miljan Amanovic in one fell swoop.
After retiring from the quarterfinals of Wimbledon due to an elbow injury, Djokovic announced in July 2017 he would miss the rest of the season after undergoing, you guessed it, elbow surgery.
Being a Bad Sport Never Works
The tennis rivalry between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal is among the greatest of all time in the sport . Pound for pound, you can make a good argument that the matches between the two represent the best tennis played in the history of the sport.
It will never get the shine it deserves because Djokovic has been sour about acknowledging his opponent's greatness from the start, which is the opposite of what Nadal has done.
Look no further than the first time the two ever squared off for evidence. After Djokovic lost to Nadal in the 2006 French Open quarterfinals — he retired because of injury — his response was to tell the media Nadal was "beatable on clay."
That ain't it.
Even When Djokovic Beats Federer, He Can’t Win
Novak Djokovic seemed like he could be the market replacement, so to speak, for Roger Federer — meaning he could take Federer's corner in the hearts and minds of tennis fans.
The best example we have of the Grand Canyon-sized gap between the popularity of the two players is the epic 2019 Wimbledon final between Djokovic and Federer. In the longest match in the history of Wimbledon at 4 hours and 57 minutes, Djokovic prevailed in a five-set tiebreaker against the 37-year-old Federer.
If you were watching that year, the biggest thing to notice afterward was the muted reaction Djokovic got when he held up the Wimbledon trophy. Versus the raucous reception Federer got leaving the court. The people have spoken.
Djokovic's Greatest Rival Hasn't Even Won a Grand Slam
Despite his actually great on-court rivalries with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal — arguably two of the greatest tennis rivalries of all time — Novak Djokovic has become much more known for his beef with Australian tennis star Nick Kyrgios in recent years.
Kyrgios put Djokovic on blast when he said the Serbian star had "a sick obsession with being liked," calling his antics "cringe-worthy," then hitting him with the ultimate ether rag — "I've never seen anyone want to be like someone else so bad. He wants to be Roger (Federer) more than he wants to be himself."
Kyrgios, who has never advanced past the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam since turning pro in 2013, is actually 2-0 in matches against Djokovic.
Djokovic Tossed From U.S. Open After Hitting Line Judge With Ball
In one of the more infamous moments in Grand Slam history, Novak Djokovic was kicked out of the 2020 U.S. Open after he hit a ball at line judge Laura Clark in anger and the ball struck her in the throat.
Clark — who ended up being OK — stayed down for several minutes. Djokovic was trailing Pablo Carreno Busta 6-5 in the first set. Angry he was behind and an overwhelming favorite to win the tournament, Djokovic struck the ball in frustration toward the line judge.
Officials immediately gave Djokovic the boot and forced him to forfeit the $250,000 in prize money he'd earned through the first three rounds. It's worth noting he apologized.
OK, Let’s Point Out Some Good Djokovic Has Done
Novak Djokovic has done a lot of good in his native Serbia. Most notably, t he Novak Djokovic Foundation has teamed with World Bank since 2015 to build 43 schools that have seen over 20,000 children come through their doors.
After the 2014 Balkans Floods, Djokovic donated his winnings from the Rome Masters to flood victims in Serbia — about $600,000 — and his foundation raised another $600,000 as well.
In March 2020, Djokovic and his wife, Jelena, donated $1 million to buy ventilators and other medical equipment for hospitals in Serbia.
Pretty Much a Snake Oil Salesman
For all of the good Djokovic may have done in his philanthropic life, you can make a good case he's undone that good with one business venture – his 80 percent stake in the biotech firm QuantBioRes, where he's essentially shilling for a fake Covid cure.
Here's what QuantBioRes is all about — convincing people they can find a cure via a technique that uses electromagnetic frequencies.
"It does not reflect a contemporary understanding of how biochemistry works," said Peter Collignon, an infectious disease and research expert in an interview with The Guardian. "Their website describes a way of finding a new molecule without providing any evidence of success."
We Repeat: Novak Djokovic Is Not a Scientist
The feat is always going to be that people will confuse athletic greatness for aptitude in other areas — business, politics, you name it. In Novak Djokovic's case, that means trying to fake your way into being a scientist.
Following his elbow surgery in early 2018, Djokovic said he "cried for three days" because he didn't believe in surgeries or medications, and the human body should be a "self-healing mechanism," although the surgery likely saved his career.
In his 2013 autobiography "Serve to Win," Djokovic stated scientists have proven that our emotions and speech can turn molecules in food and drink into becoming harmful or healthy for our bodies.
Does Novak Djokovic Have Supernatural Powers?
When it comes to diet and homeopathic cures, it's worth pointing out that Novak Djokovic has over and over again been referred to as perhaps the most well-conditioned tennis player of all time. That means he's always in really good shape.
But one dubious claim from his autobiography gave us pause — and wonder if Djokovic maybe has E.T.-like supernatural powers. The tennis star claimed that he had knowledge that if a person directed "anger, fear and hostility" toward a glass of water it would turn green over the course of a few days. If a person directed "love and joy" at another glass of water, over a few days it would remain "bright and crystal clear."
Big news if true.
Before There Was a Vaccine, Djokovic Was Against It
The ATP Tour, like all pro sports, shut down in the spring of 2020 because of the pandemic. In a time where speculation was rife over how, exactly, we would get back to pro sports and what that path might look like, leave it to Novak Djokovic to lend a non-helpful voice.
In April 2020, Djokovic went on Facebook Live to come out against vaccination and did not want to be forced to take a vaccine to return to playing on the tour. It's worth pointing out that playing tennis is a voluntary activity, as is taking the vaccine in most cases, and a vaccine for COVID had not even been created yet.
Vaccine Controversy at 2022 Australian Open
In order to participate in the 2022 Australian Open, participants were required to show proof of their COVID vaccination — the same process as trying to get into restaurants and movie theaters in some states.
Djokovic stated his vaccination status was a private matter, which is totally his right and still left room for adjustment on the part of Australian Open officials to find a path to play in the tournament he's won nine times.
Djokovic came out publicly on Jan. 4 to say he'd been approved to play by Tennis Australia and the state health department in Victoria. That was news to the people that run Australia as a whole.
Australian Officials Catch Djokovic in Lies
After Novak Djokovic told border officials he was unvaccinated, he was put into a quarantine hotel on Jan. 5 and became the focus of the international media. Not just sports.
Djokovic's presence brought out anti-vaccine protesters in Melbourne, but they proved to be a small minority. Unvaccinated spectators weren't even allowed in the Australian Open.
Once a lie in Djokovic's visa was uncovered — he was exposed to someone with COVID in the window before he came to Australia — Australian Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs Alex Hawke canceled Djokovic's visa on Jan. 14. After a brief appeal in federal court, Djokovic flew home on Jan. 16.
Nadal Steps Up, Wins 2022 Australian Open
With overwhelming favorite Novak Djokovic not allowed to play in the 2022 Australian Open because he was unvaccinated, the field to win became wide open.
And guess who claimed his 21st Grand Slam title? None other than Djokovic's greatest on-court rival, Rafael Nadal, who entered the tournament ranked No. 5 in the world and had only won the tournament on one previous occasion, in 2009.
Guess What ... Nadal Also Won the 2022 French Open
You could have made a good argument that Rafael Nadal already had a pretty fantastic 2022 after he pulled off an upset win at the Australian Open. But he wasn't done yet.
Nadal won his 22nd Grand Slam title in June 2022 at the French Open, defeating Casper Ruud in three sets in the finals and becoming the oldest French Open champion in history, just a few days past his 36th birthday.
Djokovic's Personal Life Comes Under Scrutiny
Former tennis star and commentator John McEnroe may have been a little out of pocket when he alluded that Novak Djokovic's struggles in 2017 may have been due to "Tiger Woods-like" issues of infidelity and said he "had issues with his wife." We later learned Djokovic needed to undergo elbow surgery.
It didn't mean McEnroe was wrong. Djokovic has been married to his childhood sweetheart, Jelena, since 2014, but has been dogged by cheating rumors for the last decade — most notably with famous Serbian DJ Lady Lee and Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone.
In 2016, Padukone and Djokovic were spotted leaving a Los Angeles nightclub together in a chauffeured car, one year after Jelena and Padukone sat together during one of his matches at Wimbledon.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Here's the thing about being a hated sports figure. You always have the opportunity to turn things around by doing the one thing that got you there. Winning.
We can think of plenty of examples of athletes who were hated, then became beloved later on. NBA superstar LeBron James has seemingly been the hero and the villain and back again at least three times during his career. In the NFL, Michael Vick actually went to federal prison for two years, then returned to be named NFL Comeback Player of the Year in 2010 and signed a $100 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Redemption lies for Djokovic mostly on the court. If he ends his career with the most Grand Slam singles titles of all time, which he almost certainly will, it's going to be impossible to deny his place in sports history.
What happens off the court? Well, that's up to Djokovic.
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