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Serbia's Novak Djokovic in action at the French Open on June 4.Lisi Niesner/Reuters

The portion of the movie where a would-be hero becomes the villain instead usually takes about 10 minutes at the beginning. Nice guy gets kicked a couple of times. Instead of brushing it off, he leans into the dark side. By the second act, he’s turned on the system that created him.

Novak Djokovic’s black-hat transformation is taking longer and arriving later. But at the French Open, you can see his work starting to pay off.

It’s difficult to play a proper black hat in tennis because of its two basic requirements – you must be willing to goad crowds who want to cheer you, and you have to win.

There hasn’t been a great one in tennis since young Andre Agassi. Young Andre Agassi was insufferable. He was so easily detestable that Esquire magazine named its yearly razzy sports awards after him.

Then Agassi got rid of the wig and became a nice person. It was a real disappointment. But that’s usually how many of us go – hard at first, soft once we’ve met Steffi Graf.

Djokovic is doing it the wrong way around. He’s mellowing into the bad guy.

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It is now difficult to remember the original Djokovic, in part because he has physically changed so little. Same build, same hair, same everything. Most glamour athletes get glowed up as they go on. Think of Roger Federer slowly becoming Cary Grant through the course of his career.

Not Djokovic. Exactly the same as he was.

But at the beginning, he was a charming dweeb. Goofy interviews and delighting in doing impressions of his colleagues. The Rafael Nadal – repeatedly tugging a wedgie out of his bum before his serve – got huge laughs. But no one admired him for it. They found it hilarious in a cringe-inducing sort of way.

Gradually, it must have occurred to Djokovic that he was never going to be treated with the awe Federer and Nadal took for granted. He would be admired on the court and pitied a bit off it.

When he had a two-year-long dip in form, no one felt bad for him. A lot of people speculated in unseemly ways about what was behind it. This was Djokovic’s “Who are my real friends?” moment. He must have realized he didn’t have as many as he thought.

After Djokovic returned from that stumble, the childish exuberance was gone. No more impressions. No more trying to be the funniest guy at every postmatch interview. He was serious now, but he still hadn’t turned.

Without COVID-19, he might never have had his Joker moment. Looking back at it now, he was treated pretty shabbily.

He was foolish, but not aggressively so. He didn’t tell people not to get vaccinated. He just wouldn’t do it himself. He didn’t break any rules. He just slipped in wherever the local rules allowed it. As far as we know, he never told any lies to benefit himself. That puts him ahead of most highly successful people.

The Australian Open debacle was 100 per cent Australia’s fault. It told him to come. He came. Then it threw him in detention and made him a global laughingstock. When a court told him to leave, he left.

Djokovic didn’t rip the country and its baffling inability to get its bureaucratic ducks in a row. I certainly would have. I would have lived on a TripAdvisor message board for a month. I’d be outside the Australian consulate with a bullhorn for an entire summer.

Not Djokovic. He came back the next year, said a lot of nice things about everyone there and won the tournament as usual. I’d say he showed the patience of Job in that instance.

But you can see the cracks beginning to extend from the initial point of impact.

A couple of weeks ago, Nadal announced he would think about thinking about retiring. In the normal course of things, a player of Djokovic’s stature would pick up the media slack.

With Nadal headed toward the exit, Djokovic is the last of the great ones who’s still a going concern. He’s won five of the past seven Slams he played in. His motor is still ticking over as well as it ever has.

You’d expect all the news focus to be on “When will Djokovic take the career Slam lead?” and “Is he the greatest ever?” It certainly would if Federer or Serena Williams had found themselves in the position he’s in now.

Instead, everyone’s moved on to the next big thing, Carlos Alcaraz. He gets the big cheers in Paris. People want to see what he’s doing.

And Djokovic – oh, is he still around?

When Djokovic is in the news outside of Slams, it’s got something to do with the vaccination policy of whatever country he’d like to play in. That might bother me, too.

No wonder Djokovic has begun to act out. He made headlines in Paris when, during one of those canned postmatch bits where the players sign a camera lens, he sent a political message.

“Kosovo is the [heart] of Serbia,” he wrote.

France’s Sports Minister warned him to keep it between the pipes, as though it’s any of her business what a private citizen says when someone turns a camera on him. Djokovic, clearly enjoying the provocation, said, “Of course I’m aware that a lot of people would disagree, but it is what it is.”

That’s where Djokovic is now – the “is what it is” stage of his career. You don’t like it? Get stuffed.

He was booed steadily by a vocal minority of the crowd this week. Afterward, he said, “They paid the ticket. They can do whatever they want.”

And so can he. You get the impression that the Djokovic Revenge Tour is just getting started.

On Sunday, Djokovic jogged backward into the quarter-finals. Without Nadal on hand, the Serb should be the favourite to win here, though he isn’t. It would make him the first man to win three of each Slam. It would also put him into the men’s career majors lead with 23.

It’s gotten so we know what to expect from Djokovic the tennis player. But I’m not sure we fully know what we’re getting from Djokovic the tennis personality. These days, that’s the real draw.

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