Everyone has favorites. Anyone who has ever watched a sport, leave alone loved it, had to have a favorite, who they loved and rooted for against that other guy.
The times when you intensely pumped your fists in front of the Television or switched the damn box off in utter disgust, screamed your lungs out at match point or slumped back in misery with tears almost threatening to break the dam.
I was about 12 or 13 when I had my first such sporting experience – ignominiously enough in something that is not a sport. I broke down in tears when The Rock lost his Wrestlemania 1999, I believe, all swathed in blood to Stone Cold in an epic marathon match. It would be nine more years before that moment repeated itself in the 2008 Wimbledon final.
As I look back at the two men, nothing even remotely tethers them. To begin with, one is one of the greatest sportsmen ever, and the other a steroid-addled entertainer. However, searching for patterns, I discern none. Federer was the stoic maestro while the Rock was more vaudeville even for the Wrestling rodeo. While Federer was the incumbent sovereign, the Rock was the perennial underdog as the makers of the show made him. To get my point across, we do not choose our sporting heroes, rather we fall for them - for reasons as absolutely removed from logic as they can be, and not always for even the same reasons.
Even still, why Novak Djokovic has not been accorded his place among the pantheon of demigods has been the subject of mystery, multiple inconclusive and inebriated discussions, and the etiology for at least one of my dates going dead south.
Disclaimers ahead – I am one of the Federer devout, although I did root for Nole back when he was just 2-3 slams up.
It is not hard to like the guy, after all. He is already one of the greatest players tennis has seen; he's compassionate enough to share the umbrella with the ballboy; he's cool enough to play ballboy for the kids once in a while; he's quirky enough to piss off Maria Sharapova with his antics; he's probably friendly enough for you to share a beer with. In fact, he is the most likeable of all of them. It's just that love is too strong a word!
Theories have abounded trying to explain away this phenomenon, partly rooted in sportsfan psychology and mostly in conjecture. Some have tried to explain the physical traits that demarcated the three. While Roger is definitely passable, Nadal is a “veritable Adonis” when compared to the spindly teenager look that Djoker sports, thereby depriving him of the fangirls and may be boys. Hogwash! Have these theorists heard of one diminutive footballer from Argentina? Some also make the obvious flip-on-the-head hypothesis in their quest to prove this – that, somehow, Djoker's affability and quirkiness is what makes him likeable but not "lovable". Not too credible.
The last points to the strategic time-outs that Djokovic was famous for at one point of time that he was widely called the Drama Queen of tennis. Andy Murray, who he is supposed to be good pals with, said, "Don't worry about him. He does it all the time," when asked about the time-out during their 2015 Australian Open final. A Rod was not so diplomatic though and went all out when he was popped the question.
These do not comfortably answer the question though. So, I will humbly put forward my theories on the same in no particular sequence.
Despite moving into an age when every single move by a player is recorded and analyzed statistically, Sporting Greatness remains a nebulous and subtle entity. One constant, though, that has defined the legacy of any said sportsman is the quality of opposition they have faced and overcome. Muhammad Ali had Frazier, Michael Jordan had Magic Johnson, and Roger Federer had Rafael Nadal. The tale of each of them as they overcame their initial defeats to rise from the ashes and the belief in taking back what rightfully belonged to them is the base on which their standing has been built (although Federer appears to have won against Nadal sheerly by being the last man standing). The tapestry of greatness demands an equally illustrious weft to the warp, but Djokovic has been left holding the glowing strands of his career only occasionally colored with the splotches of Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka. Having spent the early parts of his career in the gigantic shadows of the Swiss and the Spaniard, Djokovic, for no fault of his has shone only in the mediocre company of Andy and Stan. That Federer was past his 30 and Nadal has been plagued by injuries has not helped his cause at all.
Additionally, Djokovic is no artist who can paint a picture of greatness by himself – like Federer - he who concocts symphonies with the mere whishes and whooshes of his racket. No thinkpieces shall ever be written of Djokovic, nor shall connoisseurs of the sport let themselves slip into delightful nostalgia on his behalf.
Rather, Djokovic represents the real over the surreal. He embodies the modern power-hitting baseline game even more than Rafa and that too without bearing the brunt of resultant injuries thanks to his inhuman fitness levels. Amid the relentless baselining, he does deliver those “Oh! How in hell did he do that” moments with his ability to disapparate and apparate from anywhere to anywhere in the court, but the impossibility of what he accomplishes is masked over by the tedious effectiveness of his style.
He is inarguably the greatest returner the sport has seen, but he does not possess the mysticism that Roger evokes. He has not transfigured the sport into a timeless experience as the Swiss has.
But, the most important reason why he is not so popular lies with us – we simply have not moved on or rather have not been allowed to. Roger Federer has hung on like a reluctant schoolkid who stays back after football session is over. Age has caught up with him sometime back, but his love for the sport has seen him return time and again to the center court at each of the Slams. On the other hand, Rafael Nadal has made comebacks appear unbelievably easy. He was written off the first time but came back to win Slams, and the second time around has just narrowly missed an Olympic medal.
With both of them still around, fans from either faction have simply stayed put instead of moving allegiance to the next generation – the way Sampras made way for Roger. Add to that, the constant fear that Djokovic could equal either of their records if he continues at the same pace, and you are left asking why you should in fact root for him. I, for one, could not once he reached the double digits!
Djoker may go on to equal Nadal or may be even Federer's record, but he will not be as loved as the other two have been – at least not anytime soon.
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