Djokovic's popularity among fans bound to increase with time; mail

Wednesday November 20th, 2013

Novak Djokovic reached the finals in three of four Slams, and ended the year on a 24-match win streak.

While saluting the Czech Republic, 2013 Davis Cup champion ...

The reason people don't put the rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic on a higher level is because there is less affinity from the public toward Djokovic. Fans loved Roger Federer and Nadal's scrappy underdog status when they initially started playing, earning them the public love. Djokovic hasn't been showered with the kind of love that either of those guys has, and it's sad because there's a lot to like about him as a person, as well as a tennis player. I think his on-court demeanor and wearing his heart on his sleeve can rub people the wrong way. But deep down I think he's a pretty emotional and caring fellow, and wants crowds to like him. He should start by hiring new agents to manage his image, and maybe sign with Nike or Adidas (again) so it can brand him.
-- @theeclectic (via Twitter)

• A dissection of Djokovic's relative lack of popularity comes up with surprising frequency. I've heard everything from a Western European snobbery/bias against Balkans and Slavs to the infamous Wall Street Journal "egg story" to his chest-thumping.

Me? I'm not even sure I agree with the premise. Djokovic is plenty popular, not least in Serbia, where he has become a national figurehead. "Theelectic" makes some good points, too. I've long thought that fans invested in either Federer or Nadal and by the time Djokovic came along, they were tapped out. It's like these families with three children. The parents were responsible and invested. Then the third kid came and they were like, "Eh, I can't be bothered. Want to watch 'Greatest Hockey Fights' until midnight? Go nuts. Just turn off the lights."

Where were we? Oh, right, Djokovic. I would add that his game -- free of weakness, but free of flash as well -- isn't an engine for popularity. The folks' slinging trash talk and wearing their son's picture on T-shirts doesn't bother me in the least. File it in under "color." But, yes, if you're a devotee of Federer's regal dignity or Nadal's folksy humility, you're probably not digging the Djokovic clan. As for the agent and marketing, CAA didn't exactly turn Djokovic into a brand or boost his profile in a demonstrable way. Give the new shop some time.

I put Nadal-Djokovic right up there with Rob Ford vs. the rest of Toronto city council. I think it's a much more compelling rivalry than Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal. While it lacks the contrasting styles of Federer-Nadal, the ferocity at which both of them play makes every point feel climactic. Djokovic is the only player who doesn't wilt to Nadal's mental fortitude, and it's great theater watching Nadal deal with someone who's as steely as he is. And this comes from a Fedophile. Other than the great Wimbledon final, I never got that feeling watching Roger and Rafa.
-- Neil Grammer, Toronto

• Any communiqué that references Rob Ford is worth running. Between Nadal and Djokovic, which is Rob Ford?

Lots of notes, by the way, on why Nadal-Djokovic has yet to take flight. Here's one from reader Richard Jordan:

"Why isn't Djokovic-Nadal a great rivalry? Not now, maybe never? Simple. Because the participants don't see the matchup that way. To have a rivalry, each participant has to feel that, more than any other opponent, 'I/we HAVE to beat him/them.' The discourse can be civil, even admiring. The competition can be completely sportsmanlike. But, unless both parties stare in the mirror before the match and demand of themselves that this particular opponent MUST fall today, there's no rivalry.

"Nadal and Federer have massive respect for each other, and always conduct themselves well in their competitions. But, until recently, each one bled silently after a loss, because the loss was to that particular opponent. Not so between Djokovic and ... anyone, as best as I can tell. And Nadal still doesn't have Djokovic as the guy in his sights. That's why."

I read this piece by Simon Briggs arguing that Djokovic's statement on Viktor Troicki's doping ban proves that tennis needs more policing. What are your thoughts?
-- Mike, Chicago

• I received lots of comments about this. Djokovic should not be fined for speaking his mind, but I do think Briggs nails the rest.

I hate to be the troubadour and keep playing the conflicts trope on calliope, as it were. But this is the anti-HGH. This is a growth-stunter. You have association heads calling matches for a network that bought the right to air matches from said association. You have management companies owning events and representing players. You have board members who have a seat at the table solely as a proxy for their company, leading to almost comically wrong-headed decisions like this.

I recall this anecdote from Jim Westhall's book, Nonsense At The Net: An ATP executive had a side deal as a paid consultant to an individual tournament. This would be like the Premier League CEO serving as a private paid adviser to Manchester United.

This is fine if you're the modern-day equivalent of Donald Dell, and use these conflicts -- and the absence of meaningful walls -- to line your pockets. But if the goal is to grow a sport, the cozy culture is lethal.

Quick story: I coach in a girls softball league in New York. I was talking to a dad/coach from another team who explained that he rotates positions every inning to insulate himself from a potential charge that he is giving his daughter preferential treatment. I'm thinking, The volunteer on a team of 10-year-olds has more scruples about conflicts than an entire sport.

I agree with you that a hole in a player's résumé should not discount him from discussion of being the greatest. Everybody has a hole and that hole is not just missing a certain title. For example, Rafael Nadal may very well win the year-end championships some day, but winning one is still not winning five, like Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras, or winning six, like Roger Federer. I just get so sick of people concentrating on what someone doesn't have. Who cares? It is about what they accomplished that got them in the GOAT club to begin with, isn't it?
-- Glen, Texas

• Right on. Even Sampras' failure to win the French Open wasn't a deal breaker.

Not including yourself, who are the tennis writers you most enjoy reading?
-- Shirley, New Jersey

• I hate reading my work. So that's not an issue. As for the others, I'm reluctant to start naming names because I'll inevitably omit someone worthy. Plus, I'll skew heavily toward English speakers. (Aside: Polyglots long asserted that Philippe Bouin of France's L'Equipe was the finest tennis writer going. Lovely guy and great company, but sadly, I never read a word he wrote. Also, Gianni Clerici is an esteemed novelist, poet and bon vivant in Italy.)

I would say this: For all of tennis' ills, an absence of quality writers is not among them. From long-form pieces to bloggers to match analysts, you're well covered. Also, tennis seems to have real draw for the "esteemed writer parachuting in," such as Martin Amis and David Foster Wallace.

As a follow-up to your article Culture Clash [in the Nov. 18, 2013, issue of Sports Illustrated], pretending to be the victim's friend is "How to Bully 101." Most bullies pretend to be the victim's friend (see the Megan Meier case). Feigning friendship will encourage the victim to reveal personal weaknesses, which then provides ammunition for later attacks. It also confuses the victim, thus reducing the chance of report, and it acts as a shield against possible defenders. In society, bystanders don't intervene in spats between friends. Victims who take the abuse are not "soft, soft, soft." They have enormous self-control and loyalty to friends and the organization. We know a lot about workplace bullying. Bullying is more likely to occur in pseudo-military organizations, workplaces that have a rigid hierarchy. Bullying is more likely to occur against newbies because they are still learning social norms of the organization and people will not believe them if they report. Physical strength does not lead to bullying. There are many forms of power. The true strength of a man (or woman) is how he uses that power.
-- Sally Kuykendall, Harleysville, Pa.

• Tennis digression -- I wrote about bullying in the Nov. 18 issue of the magazine, discussing how the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito controversy is pitting the NFL's macho old guard against the antibullying movement. Like so many of you, I am mesmerized by "bully-gate." So many angles, so many dimensions, so much ambiguity. Sally is right that there's a fundamental misunderstanding of bullying here. "How can it be bullying if they were friends?" "How can it be bullying if they were the same size?" "How can it be bullying if Martin never told anyone?" All those miss the mark widely.

Quick story: Lewis Hamilton, the British driver, came by SI and I asked him what he thought of the scandal. When I explained it, I may as well have been speaking Sanskrit. "Wait," he finally said. "They were on the same team?"

I was recently reminded that the Williams sisters have an ownership stake in the Miami Dolphins, and I'm a bit surprised that neither of them has spoken publicly about the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin debacle.
-- Patrick Fete, Cincinnati

• This is not knock on the Williams sisters, but they own the Dolphins the way you and I own Apple. These athlete ownership deals were exposed when Jay-Z sold his share of the Brooklyn Nets. While his "ownership" was no small part of the team's branding, we learned that his stake was .16 percent.

I would love to hear the sisters' thoughts on the bullying scandal. Coming from the ultimate individual sport, I suspect it might strike them as odd that one athlete would be expected to endure that at the hands of another. But I don't think either Venus or Serena is obligated to speak.

Regarding Fernando Verdasco's doubles victory at the ATP World Tour Finals: Verdasco is a great player, but the real topic is the doubles itself. Any singles player with a quite good level can be dominant in doubles; we test it in every Olympics.
-- Gonzalo, Madrid

• I haven't quite figured out why, but Verdasco's winning in London was one of my favorite stories of 2013. But, yes, it doesn't reflect particularly well on the doubles rank-and-file. It's one thing when Venus and Serena romp in doubles. We expect that they are simply superior and their power is unanswerable, that they could play with a dried gourd and still have a top ranking. But when the No. 30 singles player, never known for his net skills, dabbles with doubles and ends up winning the year-end shebang ... well, that's a hard one to spin.

Here's Ro'ee of Israel putting it nicely: "When you see that a top (but not elite) player not known for his net skills can become world doubles champion, it's only natural to think that the top pairs are there mainly because the better players don't play doubles. The same can be said of Don Budge, for instance. As long as that remains the case, I don't see how doubles gets (or deserves) a bigger piece of the pie."

Shots, miscellany

• Chris Evert held her charity event last weekend in Florida. To contribute, go to her website.

• Per your input, we'll be voting for Lindsay Davenport for the Hall of Fame.

• Feel free to tell me I'm overreacting, but does the ATP really want be in the business of attributing the success -- and, by extension, failures -- of its players to their significant others? The subject line of the email I received said, "Luck be a Lady: Has Jelena Ristic been the reason for Novak's unbeaten run since the U.S. Open." That's wrong on so many levels.

• Serbia's Nenad Zimonjic has been honored with the 2013 Davis Cup Award of Excellence.

• Skip Schwarzman of Philadelphia: "Old Guy Citing His Era alert: Congrats for putting a virtual asterisk next to the Nadal/Djokovic head-to-head record for most matches in the Open era. Allow me to cite what is likely *the* record in this regard: Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, who played 144 matches against each other over their incredibly long careers. This via Wikipedia. Other sources cite more matches than that."

• Dan Martin of Burlington, Ky., has a fine piece on Jimmy Connors-Aaron Krickstein after watching the 30 for 30 documentary This is What They Want.

• Helen of Philadelphia: "Glass half full: Roger Federer has his worst year since 2001, but still ends the year at #6, and does so while only playing 19 tournaments. (For comparison, he ended 2002 at #6, but played 25 tournaments.) And to borrow a page from the Rafa Nadal playbook -- last year's disaster is next year's opportunity. Fewer points to defend means lots of upside potential."

• An Elton John- and Billie Jean King-hosted event, which included Andy Roddick and Marion Bartoli, raised more than $700,000 for AIDS charities.

• Congrats to Greg Sharko, who's putting the finishing touches on the 2014 ATP media guide, his 25th edition.

• Congrats to Tennis Channel Chairman and CEO Ken Solomon, who will be honored in New York on Thursday.

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