Novak Djokovic was becoming tennis' gentleman king. It didn't last

There were a few months last year when Novak Djokovic began to emerge as the sport’s surprise elder statesman.

It began at the French Open, when he finally surged ahead of Rafael Nadal to become the king of the all-time Grand Slam singles race. He regaled the crowd with the story of a small boy growing up in a small country in the Balkans with little in the way of tennis pedigree who dreamed of becoming a champion, and he told children everywhere to pursue their own dreams, no matter how far-fetched they might seem.

He was gracious in defeat at Wimbledon a month later, tipping his hat to Carlos Alcaraz, his heir apparent. Then he won another Grand Slam at the U.S. Open, where the New York crowds, who love greatness more than anything else, embraced him as they never had before, and he hit the inspirational notes of children and dreams once more.

Strange as it may have seemed, with Roger Federer retired and Nadal vanquished and injured beyond full repair, the sport’s cantankerous contrarian who had never met a situation he could not turn into a me-against-the-world dynamic, had suddenly become its gentleman king.

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Djokovic was gracious in defeat at Wimbledon last year (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Well, that didn’t last long. 

Djokovic’s somewhat dormant authentic self erupted in full on Monday night at Wimbledon. It had been rumbling for a while, his eyes turning angry when he took on Jannik Sinner twice in Italy in a hostile environment. 

As the boos reigned down from Sinner’s home-country faithful, Djokovic made like an orchestra conductor, trolling the Italians on his way to winning the Tour Finals. There were similar moments in Melbourne as he took on the Aussie, Alexei Popyrin, and through the Spring, as Djokovic slumped and underdogs punched holes in his previous invincibility. Sometimes, he would pick out specific rabble-rousers in the crowd and take them on directly.

But there was nothing quite like Monday night’s post-match rebuke to a Centre Court crowd that had been razzing him with all those “Ruuuuuuuuuuuunnne” chants. They were for his opponent, Holger Rune but to Djokovic they sounded suspiciously like “boooooooo”. Federer never had to put up with this. When he was the king of Centre Court, the crowds loved nothing more than seeing him dance through opponents. 

They never took the side of the underdog. They cheered for Federer even when he faced Andy Murray, the favorite son of British tennis, on Wimbledon’s most hallowed court. Djokovic demolished Rune, then ripped into the Centre Court fans, who are supposed to be known for their decorum.

“To all the fans that have respect and have stayed here tonight: thank you very much from the bottom of my heart. I appreciate it,” he said. “And to all those people who have chosen to disrespect the player — in this case, me — have a goooooood night. Goooooood night, gooooood night. Very good night. Yep.”

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Djokovic was critical of the Centre Court crowd on Monday (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Told that it was not disrespect, Djokovic said he refused to accept it.

“I’ve been on the tour for more than 20 years. I know all the tricks, I know how it works.”

There was more, even a bring-it-on moment.

“I played in much more hostile environments. Trust me. You guys can’t touch me.”

An hour later, with a cooler head, Djokovic acknowledged that the passion of paying of customers pays his salary, “and he’s mostly fine with it”.

“It’s actually one of the biggest reasons why we are here, why the tournament is so important historically and why we are globally recognized as tennis players, is because of the fans, because of the interest that they put into watching tennis matches, paying tickets, queuing to come,” he said. “I respect that. I try to acknowledge that.”

Love or hate Djokovic, and there are plenty of people on both sides of that particular fence, he is simply an armchair psychologist’s delight, who thrives on drama. 

Last year at the Australian Open, he turned his match against Alex de Minaur, Australia’s current favorite son who he plays again in the last eight at Wimbledon, into a revenge match against a country that had detained and deported him the previous year over his refusal to get vaccinated for Covid-19. He blasted De Minaur 6-2, 6-1, 6-2, then made plain what had motivated him. 

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Djokovic beat de Minaur at last year’s Australian Open (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

At the French Open, he touched the third rail of Balkan politics, scrawling his view that Kosovo was the heart of Serbia, a debate that Muslims and Christians have been raging about for nearly 1,000 years. 

“A drama-free Grand Slam, I don’t think it will happen for me,” Djokovic said after one of his matches. “I guess that drives me.”

At the U.S. Open last year, it wasn’t enough to smash Ben Shelton in front of a crowd of nearly 24,000 trying to will the new wonderboy of American tennis to a win in the semifinal. When it was over, Djokovic had to add a little spice to the moment by stealing Shelton’s “hang-up-the-phone” victory gesture. That garnered an icy glare from Shelton during the post-match handshake. 

“I just love Ben’s celebration,” Djokovic said after with a devilish grin. 

Perhaps everyone should have known, then, that something on the order of Monday night was in the offing, especially with Djokovic starting to edge closure and closer to an improbable run to the final that began a little more than three weeks after knee surgery. 

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Djokovic has recently recovered from knee surgery (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Mark Philippoussis, the former pro from Australia and a Wimbledon finalist in 2003, said by now everyone should know giving Djokovic anything to be angry about is a terrible idea, not that he needs much to get angry. 

“I think he wants to hear boos because it makes him play better.” Philippoussis said on Tuesday morning. “If I was playing him, I would just give him compliments at the change of ends.”

Knowing Djokovic, that would probably make him really angry. 

(Additional contributor: Charlie Eccleshare)

(Top photo: Andrej Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images)

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