A few years ago, a friend of mine watched a couple of Roger Federer matches and was left unimpressed. Don't get me wrong; he was suitably gobsmacked by the impossible flicks and touches that Federer so casually turned into winners. But he called those shots lucky flukes; he found it hard to believe Federer was doing them intentionally.
It took plenty of insistence on my part, and also many more viewings of Federer's matches, to convince the friend that a thing can only be called a fluke if it happens just once or twice. If it happens literally all the time, then there has to be a design behind all of it.
The times have changed, but we now find ourselves in a similar situation with respect to another player: Novak Djokovic. And it's not his magical shots that casual fans find hard to believe; it is his outrageous escapes from the brink of defeat, the latest of which denied the overwhelming fan favourite Federer his 21st Slam.
To be honest, even regular watchers are finding the events of Sunday evening a little difficult to digest. Did all of that really happen? Did Federer really serve like a dream until he reached two match points at 8-7 in the fifth set, when every serve suddenly started coming back? Did Djokovic really look like a man who couldn't get more than two shots over the net, until suddenly he couldn't miss? Did the earth really stop spinning?
Surely this had to be a fluke, a freak occurrence that nobody had any control over. But we've said that about Djokovic before, haven't we? We said it at the 2010 US Open, then again a year later at the 2011 US Open; in both of those matches Djokovic came back from two match points down to defeat Federer. He's done it to other players too: Andy Murray at Shanghai 2012, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Roland Garros 2012, even Rafael Nadal at Australian Open 2012 (Djokovic didn't save match points there but he did come back from a break down in the fifth set).
Clearly, there is nothing unintentional about Djokovic pulling out victories from the jaws of defeat. The first time it happened, back in 2010, we could possibly have brushed it aside as a fluke. But now, we have to recognise it as a work of genius, just like those ridiculous flick winners of Federer.
Do we truly recognise Djokovic's greatness though? Yesterday, as he was fighting tooth and nail with the legend for close to five hours, it seemed like there was only one player on the court. Actually no, even that would have been acceptable. The reality was much worse: not only was every single point won by Federer greeted with resounding applause, but every point won by Djokovic elicited boos from the unabashedly partisan crowd.
Djokovic wasn't just a non-entity for the Wimbledon crowd; he was a supposedly evil presence who they wanted to actively oppose.
The situation isn't much different on social media, where 'book-long' essays have already been written on how Djokovic was a 'lucky' and 'undeserving' winner yesterday. Stats of the match have been bandied about, showing how Djokovic hit only about half as many winners as Federer and broke serve less than half times, but still ended up as the victor. His behaviour has also been brought into question for some reason, with people recalling his racquet smashes and arguments with umpires from the past (never mind he barely did any of that during the final).
Djokovic's immediate response after clinching match point didn't help matters. Rather than looking relieved or overjoyed, he looked vindicated — as though he was saying "Take that!" to the crowd.
That was the last straw for many. Djokovic was never the crowd favourite, but he is now being painted as a full-blown villain. "This man doesn't deserve our sympathy," seems to be the majority feeling in the tennis world right now.
But he doesn't need our sympathy; he needs — nay, deserves — our respect. Respect for the way he neutralised Federer's smart tactics yesterday. Respect for the way he channeled the crowd's negativity into something positive. Respect for all that he has achieved in his career which puts him, at the very least, on par with Federer and Nadal as the greatest of all time (can there be three GOATs?).
Djokovic was never at his best during the match on Sunday, but he still managed to hold off Federer's astute plans long enough to make it a battle of nerves in the decider. If Federer had won, his performance would've been hailed as a tactical masterclass for the way he took apart the Serb's game without ever going for the all-out attack. But Djokovic survived; his game may have broken down, but his will never did.
He somehow found his steadiest tennis at exactly the most crucial times, stealing not one or two but three sets from right under the Swiss' nose. That forehand pass to save the second match point will go down as the stuff of legend; as yet another example of his ability to summon inch-perfect shot-making when absolutely nothing else will do. How can that kind of unreal clutch play not elicit awe?
Djokovic fought not just the player at the other side of the net, but also a 15-000 strong contingent constantly cheering every one of his mistakes. "If you have the majority of the crowd on your side, it helps, it gives you motivation, it gives you strength, it gives you energy. When you don't, then you have to find it within, I guess. When the crowd is chanting 'Roger' I hear 'Novak'," he said after the match.
How can that kind of superhuman optimism not warrant admiration?
Djokovic now has 16 Grand Slams, and has established dominance over two different surfaces (just like Federer). He has also given Nadal an occasional run for his money on clay (which Federer never really could), even holding all the four Slams simultaneously at one point.
He has a positive head-to-head record against two of the greatest players of all time, a stranglehold over the No 1 ranking in the toughest era ever seen in tennis, and a position near the top of every conceivable historical list you can find under the Wikipedia page on tennis. And all this, after suffering a mid-career slump so severe that at one stage it seemed impossible he would ever win another title again.
How can that mountain of accomplishments not demand the highest respect we can possibly offer?
We don't have to love or even like Djokovic if we don't want to. That's a matter of personal choice; if there's something about him that rubs us the wrong way, it's perfectly fine.
But respecting him is not a matter of choice. If, after all that he has done, we still don't accord him his rightful place as one of the GOATs (if not the outright GOAT), then the problem is not with him. It is with us.
Updated Date: Jul 15, 2019 16:08:03 IST