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Novak Djokovic is creating the problem, not the Wimbledon crowd

In Europe
July 09, 2024
Novak Djokovic is creating the problem, not the Wimbledon crowd

“Wow, where did that come from?” Such was the Centre Court reaction to Novak Djokovic’s prickly victory speech on Monday night.

One minute, the fans had been creating an amusingly knockabout mood as they serenaded Djokovic’s opponent Holger Rune with cries of “Ruuuuuune”. The next, they were being told off like naughty schoolchildren.

The first part of the speech was quite funny, as Djokovic told the fans who had “disrespected” him to have “a goooooooood night.” But he should really have left it there.

Instead, when the ever-chirpy Rishi Persad pointed out that those sounds had not actually been boos, Djokovic slapped him aside on the grounds that “I have been on the tour for more than 20 years. I know all the tricks.”

Well, exactly. And those 20 years should have taught him a couple of things. Firstly, that most fans will tend to back an underdog against him. And secondly, that these elongated vowels have become a sporting catchphrase.

Only last week, Djokovic stood at the back of Centre Court when Sue Barker arrived to interview the departing Andy Murray, and received a deafening “Suuuuueee”. Did he think the fans were booing her?

Cristiano Ronaldo has a lot to answer for. He started yelling “Si” – Spanish for yes – after scoring goals for Real Madrid in the early 2010s. His fans built on the habit, making “Siuuuu” their aural salute. For no obvious reason, this cry became popular at the 2022 Australian Open during Nick Kyrgios’s run to the men’s doubles title.

Other sporting incarnations include “Roooot” when Joe Root is batting and “Kooooch” when Matt Kuchar is on the tee. At Wimbledon on Monday, the fans seemed delighted to have invented a new version. And when the match quickly descended into a rout, yelling it out became a way of amusing themselves.

Rune: ‘I think was great support for both players’

As a bemused Rune said afterwards, “I think was great support for both players, to be honest. They were supporting him on good points. They were supporting me. Nice scenes out there on Centre Court.”

In the wake of Djokovic’s counter-attack, some might question whether the Wimbledon crowd has changed in recent years. Remember that the All England Club run an online ballot now, instead of the starchier “stamped addressed envelope” approach.

Since the shift came in two years ago, patrons have perhaps been a little less formally dressed, with a few isolated football shirts breaking up all the linen suits and floral prints. But the rowdiest Centre Court crowd I can remember dates back far before the pandemic to Heather Watson’s near-miss against Serena Williams in 2015.

There really was booing that night, especially when an increasingly fraught Williams went up to the chair umpire to complain about all the shouts during rallies. Compared to that, Monday night was like a wake.

There’s another point here that people are forgetting, and that is Djokovic’s complicated inner psychology.

The most successful player in the history of men’s tennis, he has nevertheless been underappreciated by fans throughout his career, and has dealt with it in a number of different ways.

‘When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger’, I hear ‘Novak’’

At times, he has tried to win crowds over with his heart-throwing victory celebration. (Yes, the one that Kyrgios once described as “cringeworthy”.)

At others, he has performed a sort of mental alchemy so that – as he put it after his 2019 Wimbledon triumph over Roger Federer – “When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger’, I hear ‘Novak’.”

In recent seasons, though, he has become more combative. Last year’s Roland Garros saw a particularly feisty interaction with the French fans – whose volatility far exceeds that of the Wimbledon mob – when he sarcastically encouraged Court Philippe Chatrier to boo even louder.

Increasingly, Djokovic seems to be taking the Rassie Erasmus route. Which, as any rugby fan knows, involves creating a sense of grievance and a siege mentality. The process has worked brilliantly for the Springboks, and who would be surprised if it carried Djokovic to an eighth Wimbledon title on Sunday?

French and American fans never warmed to Djokovic

Throughout his career, the only slam where he has been consistently celebrated is in Australia. Not only is there a large Balkan population in Melbourne, who turn out in their droves with Serbian flags and passionate support, but Djokovic’s dominance of that event has earned him the respect of the whole city.

The French have never warmed to him, although that is hardly unusual: they did not show a great deal of love to Rafael Nadal either until the later years of his career. As for the Americans… well, when Djokovic played Federer in the 2015 US Open final, his winners were greeted by pin-drop silence.

It’s not as if he has been slow to speak about this stuff. If I search my laptop’s Documents file for the words “Djokovic” and “disrespectful”, the results scroll on and on. Take the Centre Court meeting with home hope Kyle Edmund in 2018, after which he complained about “a couple guys pretending they were coughing and whistling while I was bouncing the ball.”

The odd thing about Monday night’s drama, though, is that there was no booing and no deliberate coughing. Djokovic just felt like a man looking to pick a fight.

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