Novak Djokovic doesn’t care what we think about him – that’s what makes him so compelling

He will not sacrifice or compromise his beliefs to appease the public in pursuit of popularity. There’s something admirable about that

Novak Djokovic is the most obsessively dedicated, idiosyncratic and ruthless elite athlete in world sport. This, I would contend also makes him the most fascinating. Hear me out, please. I know you are rolling your eyes and sighing passive aggressively at me that he is “so boring”. We just cannot seem to love the greatest male tennis player of all, a man who is on course to win a record-equalling eighth Wimbledon title, his fifth in a row.

It is difficult to imagine Djokovic – never mind 23 grand slam titles and 96 overall; notwithstanding winning “our” tournament so often; despite the obvious love, respect and veneration he clearly has for Wimbledon – being accorded the adulatory standing ovation Roger Federer received when he took his seat in the Royal Box alongside the Princess of Wales to watch Andy Murray last week. It was Rafael Nadal, not Djokovic, who ended the same Federer’s 19-year (!) winning streak as the ATP Tour’s “fan favourite” in December. No matter how often the Serb eats the Centre Court grass, it seems we cannot fully reciprocate.

Yes, I know he is an anti-vaxxer, who refused to get jabbed in order to play at the Australian Open and other majors. And, of course, this stance will alienate many fans. However, this antipathy or ambivalence towards him has existed throughout the latter years of the Rafa v Roger rivalry. I vehemently disagree with him, but I can see that it his self-belief or self-centeredness led him to this stance, which forms part of a wider philosophy that his body really is a temple. He will not sacrifice or compromise his beliefs to appease the public in pursuit of popularity.

Djokovic, famously, has a diet that consists of drinking water only and vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, lentils, white meat, fish, fruit and healthy oils. He is also gluten-free, although it has never been clear if he is a coeliac. He once failed a relatively unscientific strength test while holding some bread and that was enough for him. Dairy products and (certain types of) tomatoes are also out. Writing as someone whose partner is a coeliac, it is difficult to overstate how focused one needs to be to actually choose “Gluten-free”. Add to this mix his dedication to both yoga and tai chi. Much of the population remain a little wary of both but the 36-year-old credits (like Ryan Giggs before him) their practice with his relatively injury-free, long career.

Consider too what he says about winning. “Tennis is a mental game. Everyone is fit. Everyone hits great forehands and backhands” and his famous “I want the same thing I have wanted since I was seven years old: to be number one” are not examples of the understatement to which we Brits are habitually drawn. Contrast his famous 2013 Australian Open post-tournament celebration of one square of chocolate to Jack Grealish’s 72-hour post Champions League victory bender. Do we stereotype Djokovic as a dour East European and miss how funny he is?

His Serbian view of Balkan politics also leaves us a little uncomfortable. Djokovic doesn’t care: he has his own worldview. This all makes him a tricky character to love, no matter what happens on Centre Court. But, it also makes him the single most compelling athlete in sport.


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