Being Djokovic

Somesh

At the onset, I should clarify my position. I am not a Novak Djokovic fan.

Why? After all, he’s the No 1 Tennis player in the world at the current moment, most likely to end up becoming the most successful men’s player in history. And who knows when that record will be broken.

That alone should be enough reason as why I – or anyone – should be his fan. But I can blame my ‘not-being-Djokovic-fan’ towards admiration of my GOAT, a certain player by the name of Roger Federer. It’s not a conscious decision, but then that’s how our allegiances work most times. We do not decide things consciously, like our favorite colour, our favourite food… even our favourite players.

But I have had huge respect for Djokovic. He’s one of the smoothest players I have seen across surfaces. My respect for him is despite him beating Roger Federer in three Wimbledon finals. Only once has Federer beaten him on his favourite surface – Grass. Yes, my respect is in spite of the fact that Federer has been on the receiving end of their contests – losing 21 while winning only 10 since 2011.

My respect for the player stemmed from the fact that Djokovic has had to overcome the worst of adversaries to be where he is. Coming from a war ravaged Serbia, facing initial fitness problems (he was allergic to gluten) to becoming one of the fittest sportspersons around, it’s a story made for celluloid… a story that inspires… a story that talks of greatness…

I love the fact that Novak Djokovic Foundation builds pre-schools in Serbia and supports teacher training giving not-so-privileged children a shot at better future. Also, in a generation where playing as a pro is a norm, he loves playing for Serbia – making time to appear in Davis Cup – while he plays Grand Slams.

His is a story Yours Truly would have loved to tell first hand, if he could, or have him as a guest in his Podcast (of course that is wishful thinking).

In fact, I was sad to read that crowd clapped his misses and he was jeered in 2019 Wimbledon final playing against my favorite Roger Federer. A scene that reminds you of football stadiums of Europe than a Tennis match at Wimbledon. He won that match (which hurt more, of course).

But all of that feeling of respect has evaporated in past week or so, since he stepped in Australia to extend his domination at the court. We already knew he was no saint. Flashes of anger getting the better of him on court, rants at the umpires and ball kids (yeah, even the ball kids… who does that?) and his opponents accusing him of exaggerating his injuries (more in early part of career than now).

But then he’s one of the greatest the game has ever produced. It shouldn’t be hard to ‘like’ him.

I believe that the elite sportspersons are very humble beings. You need to be humble to ‘improve’ your game. It’s the humility that enables them to identify their weeknesses. Only a humble person can then try to ‘mend’ or remove those weaknesses. If they’re not humble enough, they don’t make it to the top. That’s a theory yours truly believes in.

But at the same time, the players of this calibre are focussed so much on their craft, they tend to become insular towards rest of the world. In the case of Djokovic, it would be more so since his entire affairs – including press conferences – are managed by his immidiate family members. These sportsbeings, just to focus on their game and polish it to the extent that they become unbeatable, tend to only interact with people close to them and rarely try to go out of their comfort zones in this regard. Yes, even the best of sportspeople love to be in their comfort zones – which does not include sports – so that they get a sense of being ‘normal’.

On his first day as CEO of Carlsberg Group, Cees ‘t Hart was given a key card. The key card locked out all the other floors of the elevator so that he could directly go to his swanky office in the 20th floor, a perk that came with his position.

After couple of months, Cees decided to switch his office to an empty desk in an open-floor plan on a lower floor and explained, “If I don’t meet people, I won’t get to know what they think. And if I don’t have finger on the pulse of the organization, I can’t lead.”

Power gives you insularity. As you rise on the pecking order, you run the risk of getting an inflated ego. Imagine an inflated ego in a person that’s basically very humble regarding her/his craft.

And this ego comes in the way of saying sorry. And even when they say sorry, there are excuses hidden in it. Like not telling Immigration officials about previous travels becomes ‘human error’, meeting people on the following day of being tested Covid positive becomes ‘okay’ and questions on that become the reason to adjourn press conference.

Remember his Adria Tour event, early in Covid Pandemic, where players didn’t have social distancing and they could be seen hugging at the net. All this when we didn’t even have COVID vaccine.

Djokovic can choose not to be vaccinated, and also choose to contract Covid, if he pleases. It’s when he risks others’ lives and lies like a politician, people like me have a problem.

My young son’s favorite superhero is Spiderman because he thinks that mask is ‘cool’ and the web shooting is even better. I like that superhero because his Uncle Ben says “With great power comes great responsibility!”

And there in lies a moral.

Imagine if Naomi Osaka, or Serena Williams acted in the way Novak Djokovic has in past few weeks. The whole world, the Tennis Association and fellow players would have reacted strongly. Remember what they did to Osaka because she missed a couple of pressers. I remember Djokovic talked about ‘following the rules’ in Osaka saga. And also, whenever Serena tries to speak anything, what type of response she gets. I haven’t forgotten that catsuit she wore at French Open – in fact it was a compression suit she wore because of health reasons – controversy not too long ago? That suit is banned, still!

Yes, there’s patriarchy to blame too, in these cases. But the point here is about not having double standards. I can imagine a lot of players would be wary of Novak’s father’s reaction – a man who loves to stir up controversy at any given time – before they even give their point of view.

We don’t have to go as far as what Mohammed Ali did. Let’s compare that with Elvis Presley . I think Elvis’ greatest contribution to mankind is not his music. In ’56, Elvis agreed to be vaccinated for polio on TV. It changed public perception of vaccination in the US. The number of children taking vaccines shot up – from 1% to more than 80.

The US became polio free in 1979. In one shot, Elvis helped change that. Djokovic is a human, and is fallible – we do understand that.

But then, with our heroes, we ‘mere mortals’ expect more!

(Your Truly writes this as he has running fever – an effect of 3rd dose of Covid vaccine. Yet he believes, it’s better to be vaccinated than not!)

This write-up also appeared in the newsletter yours truly edits: Cow Corner

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