After every win, Novak Djokovic likes to do something weird.
At Wimbledon, he eats grass (he ate it twice after this year’s final). At other majors, he enlists the ball kids into an odd celebration that involves thrusting his arms out from his chest – a riff on the Care Bear Stare.
At the Rogers Cup on Wednesday, he beat Canadian wild card Peter Polansky 6-3, 6-4. Then he bowed to each corner of the stands, Namaste-style. Most of the spectators were already up out of their seats and headed to the exits, but Djokovic didn’t seem to mind. He delights in rituals.
Given all he’s accomplished, the timing of his match was a (very light) slap – first out of the gates at 11 a.m. That sort of thing matters to some players.
Toronto’s Denis Shapovalov was not pleased about being moved off Centre Court to the smaller grandstand because of Wednesday’s rain delays. He issued a sarcastic tweet (“… #welldone #homeevent”) before quickly deleting it. But the (imaginary) slight obviously bothered him.
It is difficult to tell if anything bothers Djokovic. He’s tennis’ most centred man. Maybe that’s why people have such a hard time falling in love with him.
Djokovic is a magnificent professional and a perfectly likeable guy and you’d be hard-pressed to find a non-Balkan who’d describe him as their favourite player. It’s a conundrum.
After nearly two years of struggle, Djokovic is currently putting his career back together. That should make him even more sympathetic. Based on the reaction of the crowd in Toronto – perfectly polite, but nowhere close to effusive – it hasn’t.
He won Wimbledon in July, ate grass and issued an opus on Instagram so new-agey and gushing it would make Gwyneth Paltrow cringe.
There was a lot of talk in there about the “golden balance” – which I suppose is the masculine equivalent of ‘having it all’.
The paean ended: “I love you
I love tennis
I love Life.
Novak. [Prayer hands emoji] [Heart emoji] [Trophy emoji]”
That. That’s the problem.
Most athletes would like to be respected by their peers. They have the good sense not to spend too much time worrying about whether strangers like them.
They aren’t that different from the rest of us in that sense. If you’re a data analyst, you’d like to be thought of as competent by people who also do data analysis.
You would not spend a lot of time trying to convince people who have trouble with basic multiplication that you have figured out how to integrate data analysis so perfectly into your life that you’ve achieved nirvana.
That’s Djokovic’s approach. From the impressions of fellow pros early on, to the gluten-free proselytizing in the middle, to the cornball philosopher he has now become, he is the person perpetually coming in for a hug when everyone else would prefer to shake. Off the court, he is the opposite of the person he is on it – you can see him trying.
He is older now and less obviously the irrepressible golden retriever he once was. No more punning. No more wordplay. He’s been through some things and has entered the wise-old-man stage of his career.
He maintains the tendency to overexplain. For instance, on a very specific question on the Davis Cup: “The Davis Cup is a very historical competition, the only team competition in our sport …”
Someone gave him the chance to expand on his thoughts on “balance.” Djokovic scooched his chair up to the mic. You began to regret not taking a seat closer to the exit.
“Balance is the key to life,” Djokovic said. “I love talking about that.”
(One press-room wag’s retort: “I’d be pretty balanced if I had a hundred million dollars.”)
As feared, there was a lot of balance talk. The upshot – you can be balanced, too, but don’t expect to be too balanced. Being balanced is, apparently, a balancing act.
“That’s how I start my day – expressing gratitude and trying to deal with whatever life has on play for me,” Djokovic said in closing.
And you can actually see him doing that. Sitting cross-legged on an unmade bed and giving thanks to Gaia or somesuch.
Here’s the disclaimer about living how you want to live. The idea of soaking up every single moment and constant self-actualization sounds excruciating to me, but it’s evidently worked out for Djokovic. More power to him.
But if he’s talking to anyone but himself, it’s not working.
At the very least, Djokovic should be admired like a Bjorn Borg or an Andre Agassi – cultishly, by devotees who obsess over his style.
At best, he should be orbiting near the centre of the tennis galaxy, just outside Federer and Nadal.
Instead, he’s only talked about in tandem with those two (with Andy Murray sprinkled in for flavour). He’s one of the Big Four. Despite his 13 slams, people rarely talk about Djokovic on his own. The most notice he ever caught was during his decline.
That’s certainly not unfair. Djokovic has done exceptionally well for himself and made a ton of money out of it. It’s a life anyone would like to have.
But like that friend who is constantly telling you how happy they are, you suspect something’s amiss.
Perhaps if Djokovic cared a little less about what other people thought, those people would care more about him.