Novak Going Home
It goes without saying that I do not know Novak Djokovic. I have spoken to him in a group setting a couple of times and on one memorable occasion at the Olympics in Beijing, I let him and his team cut in front of me at the tennis center because they were running late.
“Thank you so much,” he said to me then, and he did seem truly grateful, which I found touching since he absolutely could have just bullied through without saying a word. He was just 21 years old then and still making his bones in the tennis world. The game was all Roger and Rafa in those days, and Novak was known — if known at all — as a talented but quirky baseline machine who did funny impressions of other players and quit on himself often enough to annoy the larger tennis community.
I had no idea, as he stepped in front of me that day, how many countless hours of pure joy Novak Djokovic would bring me. I know that it is more common for tennis fans to fall in love with the artistry of Federer or the brute force of Nadal or the scrappy ingenuity of Andy Murray or the plaid backhand genius of Stan Wawrinka or the athletic splendor of Gaël Monfils, but for me, watching Novak play tennis has been the transcendent experience. Beyond the matches themselves, I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have watched YouTube videos with glorious titles like “10 times Novak Djokovic went God Mode,” or “All the times Novak Djokovic overcame match points,” or “34 times Djokovic won a tennis point with RIDICULOUS defence.”
I switched from a one-handed to two-handed backhand because of Novak.
By the way, you won’t find those videos on YouTube now just by searching “Novak Djokovic.” No, they have been buried by other videos with titles like “Djokovic ‘making a mockery’ of Australian Open after visa revoked again,” and “Reacting to Novak Djokovic facing deportation for the 2nd time,” and “Novak Djokovic out of the Australian Open as Visa cancelled by Australian Court.”
Djokovic’s contentious effort to try and play at the Australian Open without being vaccinated — and his irresponsible behavior after contracting COVID — has been all the news the last few days, and it is by far the most attention that Novak has ever gotten despite being the greatest tennis player in the world for a decade, and it has reminded me of a simple fact about fanhood: As much as we may want sports or art or music or literature to be pure and separated from everything else, the world often intrudes.
And when it does, you find yourself in that bleary, early-morning place when you are just beginning to understand that the dream isn’t real. I’m not interested in the political fight surrounding Novak; well, I’m INTERESTED in it, certainly, but I don’t believe I have anything interesting and useful to add to it.
I believe deeply and unequivocally in vaccinations and boosters for myself and my family and anyone I love, and I’m like many other people who can’t help but wonder why Djokovic couldn’t have just gotten two painless shots that protect against this scourge, like virtually every other top ATP tennis player has done. I’m also like many other people who can’t help but think Australia and the Australian Open couldn’t have handled this worse — don’t tell the guy he can come if he can’t come.
Beyond that, though, is just the selfish sadness that I won’t get to watch Novak Djokovic play tennis.
And I love watching Novak Djokovic play tennis.
We like to have fun here at Joe Blogs. Baseball. Football. Tennis. Chess. Family. Basketball. Music. Infomercials. Movies. Olympics. Hockey. Nonsense. Magic. In short, it’s an adventure. I hope you’ll come along.
People respond with different emotions when their favorite artist or favorite athlete or favorite team gets into some sort of mess. Many lash out. They rail on about unfairness. They double down. They fight back against the critics. I get it — love is a most powerful emotion, and it pushes us to extremes we might not normally reach or anger that might seem disproportionate. Love can lead to impaired judgments. Of all the beautiful words that Vin Scully has spoken, my favorites might come from his call of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game. This came with the Cubs’ Chris Krug at the plate, ninth inning, and the count 1-2. Koufax threw a clearly outside pitch that was called a ball. The fans booed the call mercilessly.
“A lot of people in the ballpark now,” Vin said, “are starting to see the pitches with their hearts.”
Yes! The greatest art can make us see pitches with our hearts. I don’t know Novak Djokovic. But through the years, I’ve seen him be gracious and kind, and I’ve seen him be all kinds of petulant. I’ve seen him magnificently rise to the moment time and again, and I’ve seen him melt down like Veruca Salt . I’ve seen him steel himself against unfriendly crowds and play the best tennis anyone has ever played, and I’ve seen him get defaulted from the U.S. Open for the dumbest temper tantrum imaginable. I’ve listened to him tell the impossibly moving story of a young boy in war-torn Serbia dreaming of playing at Wimbledon. And I’ve seen him go off on some quacky soliloquy about how emotions can turn polluted water into healing water.
And all the while, his genius has been on the court, where he blends the most incomprehensible array of weapons — blazing speed, unmatched anticipation, a mathematician’s sense of angles, a tireless hunger to return every shot, a dream of a backhand and the best return of serve in tennis history — and turns every match into an art exhibit.
And now, frankly, now that the Djokovic saga is ending and he’s leaving, I care much less about the Australian Open. I’ll watch some of the men’s side, I’m sure, because I do get a huge thrill out of watching Nadal fight, and I see some of Djokovic’s talents in Daniil Medvedev, and Frances Tiafoe has become must-see television. And with Naomi Osaka back and Coco Gauff, I think, ready to make a run, I’ll definitely watch a lot of the women’s side.
But, for me, it will be much emptier without Novak. I could be really mad at him — a lot of people are. I’m sure I feel some of that. I could be mad at tennis officials and Australian officials and this seemingly never-ending pandemic — a lot of people are. I’m sure I feel some of that too.
But honestly, more than anything, I’m just kind of sad about the whole thing.