Last month, a tennis teaching pro on a Long Island court gave a quick lecture to his three young female players regarding Novak Djokovic.
The pro told the tale of Djokovic’s racket-throwing meltdown at the Tokyo Olympics, which cost him a medal, and last year’s incident, in which he was ejected from the U.S. Open for angrily striking a ball that accidentally struck a lineswoman in the throat.
The message was about keeping composure on the court, because even the great ones struggle with that. Was the lesson learned? Probably not, the teaching pro said. The girls, ages 10-12, had never heard of Djokovic.
Djokovic is on the verge of becoming the greatest tennis player of all time, on the verge of the Grand Slam (sweeping all four majors in the calendar year) — a feat that hasn’t been achieved in 52 years. The 34-year-old Serbian also stands six match wins from surpassing Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most major titles: 21.
Nevertheless, there is a chance the Flushing Meadows fans will root against him, similar to the way some Yankees fans in 1961 didn’t want to see Roger Maris get to 61 home runs and eclipse Babe Ruth’s mark of 60.
The crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium was anti-Djokovic on Tuesday night when chants of “Ruuuuune’’ gleefully rang out into the night. The 18-year-old Holger Rune of Denmark rattled Djokovic to win the second set, tying the match, before falling by the wayside because of cramps. Djokovic seemed emotionless throughout and sounded bothered he was not the crowd favorite.
“For sure, he’ll end up being the greatest of all time based on his record,’’ ESPN’s Patrick McEnroe told The Post. “That doesn’t mean Novak will be the most loved of all time.’’
Indeed, fans aren’t walking the Open grounds in “Novak” hats. By contrast, plenty of patrons have donned “RF’’ ballcaps — even if Federer is in Switzerland and not here.
Wearing a red “RF’’ cap, fan Max Dickstein said: “It was a coincidence with the guy’s name, but the fans seemed to relish the coincidence. It’s like Ivan Lendl. If Lendl eclipsed Pete Sampras, that would be analogous. Novak and Lendl are machines, uncreative, even though Novak contorts in ways that somehow hasn’t ended his career. If Novak wins 30 majors, people will still be asking the question: Is he really in the same category as Roger-Rafa? It’s bizarre.’’
Could the popularity issue be as superficial as Djokovic not having the charisma or good looks of Federer or Nadal?
McEnroe said he thinks Djokovic became a third wheel because he showed up last — armed with a game full of intangibles and technique, but lacking undefinable flair.
“He’s the third wheel when it comes to popularity to those two all-time greats,’’ McEnroe said. “There’s a multitude of reasons. Federer was the first to go on this amazing run. Nadal started to catch up to him. Then Djokovic came along. He’s been chasing both of them down for 10 years.”
Tennis beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but Djokovic is all about movement and mental toughness. Considering the year he has weaved, not to mention the last 10 years, when he has won 19 of his 20 majors, it figured fans wanted to watch history. Rod Laver, the last to compile the Grand Slam, will, joining the fun for the second week.
Unless, that is, Tallon Griekspoor of the Netherlands pulls off a second-round miracle Thursday versus Djokovic. Too bad Griekspoor doesn’t have a more chantable last name.
“Federer is brilliant in the way he plays the game stylistically,’’ McEnroe said. “And Nadal plays the polar-opposite style than Federer with physicality, looks like a middle-linebacker-type athlete. They are two guys with huge fans bases all over the world with two different styles, are great ambassadors to tennis and great sportsmen. And this guy Djokovic comes along behind them. He’s always been, personality-wise, a little edgier.’’
McEnroe said he’s in awe of Djokovic’s tennis attributes, his “mobility, flexibility’’ and that he has a shot for every occasion, wherever he’s stationed on the court. But McEnroe admitted he’d rather watch Federer or Nadal play.
“He’s not as beautiful to watch as Federer, not as physically imposing as Nadal, but as a tennis player, technically, he’s the perfect player,” McEnroe said. “That’s not necessarily the most beautiful thing to watch for fans. That’s why he’s not as universally loved.’’
The wave of incidents in which Djokovic has lost his cool on the court have piled up, including at the Olympics, when he threw his racket into the empty stands. Later, Djokovic smashed it on the net pole.
“A lot of things he’s done, he’s brought it on himself,’’ McEnroe said.
McEnroe thinks as Djokovic gets closer to the milestones, the fans at Ashe Stadium will root for him to make history instead of smashing history. McEnroe thinks Tuesday was partly about Djokovic being “a six-touchdown favorite.’’
Even with Federer and Nadal not here, Djokovic faces a treacherous trifecta starting in the quarterfinals — potentially facing Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini, Alexander Zverev and Daniel Medvedev.
McEnroe said he thinks Djokovic will be better off if New York goes against him.
“He’s the greatest clutch player. I’ve never seen anyone so unflappable when it comes to pressure,’’ McEnroe said. “He thrives off the fact fans are against him. That’s what’s fueled him his entire career. It will fuel him this year at the Open.’’
Originally published at https://nypost.com/2021/09/01/us-open-fans-not-embracing-novak-djokovics-quest-for-greatness/ on .