Novak Djokovic is very right, but he also navigates in a sea of contradictions
Novak Djokovic is right: Ben Shelton was rude, and it’s good that the Serb has finally set the record straight, especially after the confusion he himself generated at the 2023 US Open.
But Djokovic navigates in a sea of contradictions. And he puts himself, too, in an astonishing position.
What happened and why is Djokovic contradicting and astonishing himself?
Novak Djokovic is right
At the last US Open, the Serb celebrated his success over Shelton by imitating the mimicry of a phone call popularised in those days by the American. When asked why he did it, Djokovic said he “loved” Shelton’s gesture, which he thought was “very original”.
And Shelton, with a remarkable level of arrogance, noted that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”.
Four months later, already in Australia, an interview with Djokovic by “L’Équipe” was published in which the record man of tennis radically changed his discourse:
“It’s my reaction to a provocation that came from the other side, it was a reaction against him. He didn’t behave correctly, with respect, on the court and before the match”.
And he went further: “I’m never going to make fun of someone if he doesn’t do something before. Every time I lose I always give my opponent a hug, I congratulate him, I respect him and his team. If someone puts himself in the ‘unsporting zone’, I react”.
Djokovic is a man of many good sporting gestures. The latest of them, clapping at the end of his first-round match in Australia for his spirited opponent, 18-year-old Croatian Dino Prizmic.
But Shelton played the telephone game at the age of 20. At that age, Djokovic was viewed with suspicion, even rejection by more than a few on the circuit. From his decision to mimic the big names in tennis to his frequent requests for match breaks, with breaks to go to the locker room or for medical attention.
Andy Roddick was especially harsh on the Serb in those years, saying he probably had back, hip and ankle injuries, as well as cramps. And that Djokovic was probably suffering from bird flu, common flu and anthrax contamination.
That was at the 2008 US Open, the Serb was 21 years old. The next day, Roddick was defeated in the fifth set by Djokovic.
“Well, Andy said I had like sixteen injuries, obviously I don’t. And the spectators think I fake everything,” Djokovic said in the post-match interview. The booing he received from the stands was one of the loudest in the tournament’s history.
These days, Djokovic also spoke to “The Times”. And he said some very interesting things. He talked, for example, about the fact that Roger Federe and Rafael Nadal never gave him a place next to them.
“Yeah, there wasn’t room for three,” he said, laughing. “In all the great rivalries in sport, like in romance novels, there are always two people, not three. In football it’s Ronaldo and Messi. I understand that’s one of the reasons. I didn’t come from a western country, I didn’t come from that world and I had no problem saying I wanted to beat them, I wanted to be number one, it was something I said since I was a teenager and I think that’s something that a lot of people didn’t like, even them, so I was left out and I was judged a lot, maybe I wasn’t liked as much as them. There was also my attitude, saying I was better than them and that I would be the best. I know that’s something that can be polarising, people might like that confidence, but others are going to say I’m an arrogant jerk.”
That’s why one of Djokovic’s quotes to “L’Equipe” is astonishing, but not surprising: “If someone puts himself in the ‘unsporting zone’, I react”.
Djokovic had never occupied that place, never played that role. The guardians of the essences and responsible for an unprecedented era of “peace and love” in tennis were Federer and Nadal. They even set limits, sometimes subtle, sometimes very clear, to Djokovic himself.
But Federer today takes pictures with Fracesco Totti and Nadal’s future is a great little enigma. In a vacuum, no one in tennis has anywhere near the authority of Djokovic. And so, in this new environment, the Serb who grew up on the circuit accompanied by controversy becomes the new guardian of the essences. Or at least he is trying to be.