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Inside Djokovic’s dark energy (and an explanation for what happened in Australia 2022)

Djokovic's dark energy
The cover of "Searching for Novak", Mark Hodgkinson's brand new book about Novak Djokovic.
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There is something very clear, indisputable, when it comes to Novak Djokovic: never believe he is lost when he seems lost. Roger Federer can say a lot about that, for example, after that 2011 US Open semi-final and, above all, the 2019 Wimbledon final. In both matches, Djokovic was double match point down and ended up winning. How does he do it? You have to investigate and immerse yourself in Djokovic’s dark energy, says Mark Hodgkinson.

One of the finest writers in British sports journalism, Hodgkinson, 44, published “Searching for Novak” on Thursday 4 July, in the middle of Wimbledon, a book that attempts to unravel the complex and fascinating personality of the most successful tennis player in history. The book also examines what happened at the 2022 Australian Open, when Djokovic was expelled from the country in the midst of the covid pandemic and was unable to defend his title.

In one of the chapters of “Searching for Novak”, published by Octopus Books, the author concentrates on what he calls Djokovic’s “dark energy”, a sort of explanation for his ability to perform better than ever when he seems to be in extremely complicated situations. Here are some excerpts from those passages:

“In the swirl and the chaos at the Grand Slams, when there are negative voices in the crowd, Novak Djokovic is sometimes able, he has said, to ‘cocoon’ himself. That depends on how he’s feeling and what is happening in the match and in the stadium. Djokovic finds a way to focus on his breathing and staying in the moment. There are other occasions when he actively wants to feed off the buzz and the energy. Then there are the days when cocooning himself just isn’t possible and – because he’s not perfect – he can’t help but react to the heckles and the boos and the negativity. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing: feeling the coldness of the crowd can be enormously beneficial.”

“If the haters, as grotesque and absurd as they are, have helped Djokovic to understand his own greatness, they have also assisted him in matches, where he is always looking for an edge. The spectators won’t have realized they are helping Djokovic by bringing out his competitive side and inspiring him to greater heights.

‘If you’re booing Novak and making him angry, you’re doing him a favour,’ said Jelena Jankovic. ‘That pushes and motivates him to be even better. If the crowd is against him, he finds a way to use that to his advantage. Novak has such mental strength that he can overcome any challenge and show that he’s the best.’ If some tennis players are propelled by love, others can be driven by the animosity of the crowd, by having something to rail against. ‘The more they cheer against me, the better for me,’ Djokovic once said. ‘They wake something in me that they perhaps don’t want to see – a winner.’

“Nick Kyrgios, another player seen as a tennis villain, has spoken of the dark energy he gets when an entire stadium is against him, and how it can feel good to be in that situation. When a crowd’s down on Djokovic, his blood is up, and he has that special Serbian type of dark energy.

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Djokovic has an urbane side. But, underneath it all, according to Boris Becker, he has a streetfighter’s mentality. Djokovic’s former fitness coach, Ronen Bega, suggested the Serb has a different personality on and off the court: ‘Novak’s a very nice guy off the court. He’s very intelligent. You can speak with him about everything. On the court, it’s a different mentality. He’s a fighter. When he walks on to the court, it’s like he comes into the boxing ring. He’s a completely different guy.’

“If there have been moments in Djokovic’s career when the crowd’s animosity has stopped him from playing his best tennis, it has mostly helped him. ‘At one stage, it may have had a negative impact on Novak’s performance,’ said Craig O’Shannessy.

‘If you’ve got so many people going for the other guy, it would only have been normal if it had affected Novak and his game. But I feel as though he has thrived on that adversity from the crowd. In some ways, it has helped Novak and made him better. There have been some tough moments, but that has made him a tough competitor.’ Former coach Goran Ivanisevic has observed that Djokovic dark energy has often produced stronger performances when crowds haven’t been on his side”.

“When crowds have been friendlier, Djokovic has been a calmer, happier presence, though hasn’t always played better. Mostly, Djokovic stays quiet when a crowd is against him. But he thinks that fans should expect him to occasionally respond in those moments. Some days – and ‘I ask for forgiveness from the tennis universe for being who I am, because sometimes the ego controls you’ – he will react.

‘Misbehaving’, he calls it. Maybe Djokovic’s reactions have occasionally been more ‘explosive’ – his word – than they should have been, but his response has at least allowed him to get that emotion out of his system, as otherwise it could have started to drag him down. Naturally, another factor was Djokovic trying to show his tormentors who was actually in charge inside the stadium. To put them in their place. Such as when Djokovic told a group of British tennis fans to ‘shut up’ as their drumming was disturbing his post-match interview at a Davis Cup tie in Malaga in 2023 (he had earlier blown a kiss at a British supporter who had been annoying him with his loud interventions).

Or the occasion at the 2024 Australian Open when Djokovic invited a tormentor in the crowd to ‘come down and say it to my face’, which the man declined because, as Djokovic put it, he lacked courage (as unpleasant as that situation was, it provoked Djokovic, who had been emotionally flat earlier in the match, into raising his intensity and his level). The year before in Melbourne, Djokovic had pleaded with the umpire to deal with a heckler who was ‘drunk out of his mind’ and was seemingly more interested in getting into Djokovic’s head than watching tennis.

“Searching for Novak” on centre court at Wimbledon, the ultimate tennis stage.

For almost all of 2023, Djokovic was the only one of the Big Three still out there on the tour. Federer retired in 2022 while Nadal was mostly absent with injury. Djokovic was no longer in a popularity contest with the two most popular tennis players in history and that showed: he was more relaxed. He looked free. This was a new, ‘chilled’ Djokovic, observed Evert.

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‘For years, they always came as a threesome. Novak has always been stuck with two of the most beloved guys around. And he was always the bad guy. The biggest change I’ve seen recently in Novak was when Roger and Rafa were no longer in the picture and Novak became more relaxed and free to be who he is and to say what he wants. Novak’s the leader now and this is his stage,’ Evert said.

‘Being in a popularity contest with Roger and Rafa didn’t always bring out the best in Novak. I felt like he tried too hard at times to win the crowd over or he got too controversial. Now he’s chilled about it and I think people are starting to change their minds about Novak.’

While he was at one time more impulsive, it seems as though Djokovic is now more measured when speaking in public. The new, evolved Djokovic – ‘a deep thinker and a gentleman’, according to Evert – is unlikely to repeat the controversy of 2016 when he suggested that female tennis players didn’t deserve to be paid the same as their male colleagues as they weren’t generating the same amount of attention or selling as many tickets.

‘Billie Jean King and I accosted him at Miami and said: “We’d like to talk to you.” We spoke and he was great. We all say things in the moment that maybe we don’t really mean,’ Evert said. ‘Novak’s now a little more thoughtful in what he says. In times before, his words were sometimes impulsively said, but he’s more measured now in the way he speaks and he knows that it’s going to have an impact, no matter what he says.’

***

All of the above is related to Djokovic’s personality, complex and fascinating, deceptive to those who remain only on the surface. Hodgkinson also investigated what happened at the 2022 Australian Open. That time, Djokovic’s personality was also a factor in the debacle of those days, the author implies. But Djokovic was also unlucky, he adds.

Novak Djokovic at Melbourne’s airport trying to enter Australia in January 2022.

“Instagram was Novak Djokovic’s undoing (a sentence which makes this sound like a modern fable about the perils of social media, and maybe that’s exactly what this is). If he hadn’t posted a picture of himself in Spain before starting his journey to Melbourne via Dubai, announcing he was ‘heading Down Under with an exemption permission, let’s go 2022’, he might never have had his visa cancelled or seen the inside of the Park Hotel. What if posting that image – which was taken at an airport and showed him smiling and leaning on a trolley heaped with his racquet bag and other luggage – was the greatest blooper of Djokovic’s career?”.

“Some in Australian legal circles would suggest that was possibly the moment when the Australian Border Force decided they were going to move on him. ‘If Djokovic hadn’t posted on Instagram, I think he would have been fine,’ said Alison Battisson, the human rights lawyer who had clients inside the Park Hotel with Djokovic. ‘Without that post, I believe he would have just sailed through [immigration].’

[ CLAY is read for free. But if you can, please make a contribution here so we can keep writting great #TennisTales around the world. It’s very easy and quick – thank you! ]

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