Novak Djokovic’s shift in mindset: A new chapter in his career

Novak Djokovic’s shift in mindset: A new chapter in his career

When a special guest walked out on to Centre Court to interview Andy Murray during his farewell, for one ghastly moment I thought the greatest heresy was being committed on Centre Court since Cliff Richard sang during that rain delay. Were people really booing Sue Barker?

Of course, they were not. They were roaring: ‘Suuuuuuue.’

To my ears this was no different to what happened during Novak Djokovic’s fourth-round match with Holger Rune on Monday evening, but the Serb saw it differently. Most heard ‘Ruuune’; he heard ‘booo’.

Djokovic spoke of disrespect and said: ‘You can’t touch me.’ It was a bizarre spectacle, the seven-time champion calling out the middle-class, middle-England and middle-aged Wimbledon fans as if they were a baying mob at Galatasaray.

There seemed more than a little paranoia but, as Joseph Heller’s malingering bombardier Yossarian says in Catch 22: ‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.’

Novak Djokovic was adamant that he was being disrespected by a partisan Wimbledon crowd

The Serbian celebrated beating Holger Rune with a violin tribute for his daughter - but it as well have been intended for his detractors

The Serbian celebrated beating Holger Rune with a violin tribute for his daughter – but it as well have been intended for his detractors

Djokovic has never enjoyed the warm support given to his major rivals on the tennis tour

Djokovic has never enjoyed the warm support given to his major rivals on the tennis tour

And many tennis fans have been after Djokovic for years. By the standards of this docile sport, some of his treatment has been beyond the pale. He remains far less popular than his achievements warrant.

Off the court Djokovic is respectful and authentic, with an interest in things within and beyond his sport far exceeding that of most of his colleagues. During a chat with All England Club chiefs before last year’s tournament he wanted to know all the details of the club’s planned expansion on to golf club land. Relatively unprompted this week he launched into a passionate speech about the future of tennis.

He has his faults – the vaccination saga was a low point – but when you boil it down his chief crime is being better than everyone’s favourites Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. As the rubber-limbed Serb began to prove he had the beating of both men, the two camps rallied against him.

The most notorious example was at the 2015 US Open final against Federer, when the crowd roared every Djokovic error like a touchdown.

The 37-year-old battled through the 2015 US Open final to beat Roger Federer as if under siege

The 37-year-old battled through the 2015 US Open final to beat Roger Federer as if under siege

After the 2019 Wimbledon final, also against Saint Roger, Djokovic said: ‘I like to transmute it in a way: When the crowd is chanting “Roger” I hear “Novak”. It sounds silly, but it is like that.’

But there has been a shift in the Djokovic mindset, perhaps around the pandemic, the most turbulent time in his career as he refused to be vaccinated.

That saga gave Djokovic’s detractors a more ‘legitimate’ reason to hate him. And it radicalised a section of his online devotees, sending them down a rabbit hole of anti-establishment conspiracy theories.

It feels like since the pandemic, Djokovic has given up his attempts to gain the love of the wider tennis fanbase and embraced his – largely undeserved – role as the villain.

In 2022 he was booed here as he beat Cam Norrie in the semi-finals and blew kisses to the crowd; last year as he beat Sinner he cupped his ear to the fans and mimed wiping away tears. Antagonism has become grist to his mill and fuel to his fire.

But Djokovic could be seen as inviting the tension, celebrating beating home favourite Cam Norrie in 2022 by blowing kisses to the crowd

But Djokovic could be seen as inviting the tension, celebrating beating home favourite Cam Norrie in 2022 by blowing kisses to the crowd

Antagonism has become an important weapon in his arsenal and a fuel to his explosive fire

Antagonism has become an important weapon in his arsenal and a fuel to his explosive fire

As a hysterical editorial in a Serbian newspaper put it: ‘Although the whole situation is unbearably awful, there is at least one positive thing: Djokovic is again hungry to win trophies, and the English who hate him are giving him food.

‘The famous Serbian stubbornness will work and Novak will do his best to shut the mouths of his haters again. So, English, thank you for making Djokovic what he is with your idiotic behaviour.’

The 2003 Wimbledon finalist Mark Philippoussis on Monday summed up the mood rather well. ‘You don’t want to p*** off Novak!’ he said. ‘I think he wants to hear boos to be honest with you, because it makes him play better. If I were to play him, I would give him compliments on a change of ends!’

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