Before it became his signature moment to date, Novak Djokovic was motivated by a slight.
He had just made the greatest shot of his career, maybe of any career: Down two match points to Roger Federer in the 2011 U.S. Open semifinals, he made the wicked, desperate cross-court forehand return that saved, for the moment, the greatest season of the Open era. The shot was terrific, but the match was still over, certainly, with Federer holding another match point.
As a final acknowledgment, Djokovic turned to the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium, hugely partisan toward the great Federer, waving both hands high, as if to say You want more, don't you? And everyone did. But Djokovic was also saying You should want more of me, too. Look at what I'm doing. I'm having the greatest season in history and NO ONE here is on my side?
We all know what happened next. Djokovic broke Federer's spirit in that moment, right there. Federer was up 5-3, 40-15 in the fifth set, another potential final matchup with Rafael Nadal waiting. Federer never won another game. After that game, he never even reached another match point. Djokovic won the next four games, then steamrolled Nadal in four anticlimactic sets the following day for his third major of the year. The legend of the iron-willed Djokovic as the toughest out in sports was written that weekend, and it continues to this day.
The original slight, the abundance of respect for Djokovic but a curious absence of universal love from the tennis world, has never quite been massaged, has never quite healed. At some point, it was inevitable that despite his six majors, dominance over the rankings and recent destruction of Nadal in the Monte Carlo final (a place where Nadal had won eight straight titles), the wound would be reopened.
It happened in Madrid, where Djokovic was being stunned by Grigor Dimitrov, the young Bulgarian who seems to have patterned his every step on a tennis court after Federer. Dimitrov pulled off the three-set upset. But it wasn't the loss that seemed to annoy Djokovic nearly as much as it was the crowd, who seemed to be pulling for the upset over the game's best, suggesting once more that he hasn't completely bridged the affection gap he confronted after saving that first match point against Federer 20 months ago in New York.
After Djokovic won the second set tiebreak, he went to his chair, incited the crowd with some hand-waving, and then shouted to them in Serbian. Numerous blogs and media outlets reported Djokovic's words as obscenities.
Tension had built, crystallized by the fact that Djokovic is rarely, if ever, the crowd favorite, and having the crowd pull for Dimitrov seemed too much. The fans at La Caja Magica reacted negatively to Djokovic taking a medical timeout in the second set, commencing a series of whistles and boos and, to Djokovic's great annoyance, lustful cheers after each of his miscues.
For the tennis crowd that loves rivalry, the 21-year-old Dimitrov blew up the bracket, his win denying a delicious Nadal-Djokovic rematch from Monte Carlo, but the crowd didn't care. Just like in New York, the issue wasn't underdog versus favorite, but anyone versus Djokovic. For all his fun and playfulness and talent and erudition, it seems that upstart or favorite, Djokovic is the villain.
Novak Djokovic is the greatest tennis player going right now -- winner of five of the past nine majors, three straight Australian Opens, finalist in eight of the past 10 majors. He is the No. 1 player in the world. He plays with a ferocious indomitability on the court and owns a definitive, likable charisma off it. He is approachable and funny, evidenced by his comedy at Kids Day at the U.S. Open last year and his impersonations. But the roaring love of the tennis world is largely reserved for the two men who have carried the sport the past decade and into history: Federer and Nadal.
Of course, the two own the tennis imagination for good reason. Federer is the greatest player the game has seen, and Nadal is his greatest rival, overshadowed by Federer only in titles but not head-to-head. Together, they have accomplished more than any pair of men. Only Evert-Navratilova compares.
The Federer-Nadal camps are rabid, both entrenched, both passionate, both seeing Djokovic for part of what he is: the scary gate-crasher of one of the greatest rivalries in the history of all sports, the guy who keeps the major count down because he can beat them both. Federer-Nadal is as good as Ali-Frazier, Red Sox-Yankees, Cowboys-49ers. It is the matchup that makes fans watch the tournament draw, figure out the possibilities for the fourth round and the quarters and the semis, hoping for the dream final. It is the equivalent of the football schedule being released in the spring and circling a game that is nine months away.
Federer and Nadal will be, for many parents, the entry point or continuation of their love of the sport, the way the old guard talks about Mantle and Mays, Williams and DiMaggio.
None of which has much to do with Djokovic personally, but the individual nature of tennis creates, fairly or unfairly, a hero-villain dynamic. There are contemporary players, like Andy Murray or Tomas Berdych, who lack the leading man public persona and on-court game, and others, like Andy Roddick, who carry a certain brusqueness that marketers are paid to transform into charm, but Djokovic possesses a genuine winner's flair.
Earlier in his career, Djokovic was temperamental; his on-court rage at his play and erratic serve did not play well against the regal and elegant Federer or swashbuckling charisma of Nadal. During his 2011 season, however, Djokovic seemed to carve out a space for himself both with his relentless, unbreakable play and the recognition that it would be he and Nadal fighting for supremacy of the sport. He carried himself like a champion. He put his personality, his intelligence and multilingualism on display. His commercials are funny.
But in the space of the public imagination, nothing much can replace the hold Federer and Nadal have on this generation of tennis.
Djokovic is in many ways Ivan Lendl, the great talent who upended Jimmy Connors-John McEnroe and McEnroe-Bjorn Borg, the player who played his way into the starlight. Lendl was respected, never loved. Lendl took over for Connors against McEnroe the way Djokovic has for Federer in many ways. A Djokovic-Nadal final is box-office, top-shelf athletic entertainment.
Unlike Lendl, Djokovic does not come off to the public as cold and distant. He is Eastern European, but the Serb luckily is not saddled with the Cold War and its nationalistic trappings. Nor does he possess something gauche or unprofessional as there seems to be on the women's side with Victoria Azarenka, the reigning Australian Open champ who hasn't quite been forgiven for her various odd fits of gamesmanship on the court.
At least only for now, Djokovic remains something of the outsider, despite his gifts. Djokovic is a worthy and great champion, and has a rabid fan base. He plays with a furious and admirable desire to succeed, to belong -- no different than that of Federer and Nadal. He is, however, simply unlucky to follow the star show of two icons. Perhaps it is a slight that fuels him even as it wounds him, and over time, if he continues to dominate the game, the crowd tenor toward him will change. Nostalgia will take over and he will gain from its sentimentality in a way Lendl never did. Lendl on some occasions would mention to audiences that just once it would be nice if the crowd wanted him to win.
It should also be remembered that for much of the first two decades as a pro, Connors was never showered with universal affection, not until his surprise 1991 U.S. Open run that changed how the public would view him. In the meantime, as he dominates but can't seem to win more than half of the crowd, Djokovic is faced with an interesting adventure in self-discipline: absorb the disappointment that winning the crowd is out of his control, or continue to lose his cool and embody the villain label he seems desperate to avoid.