This year, the Gentlemen’s Single finals pitted No. 2 seed Roger Federer against No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic in front of a sold-out crowd, which included Kate Middleton, Prince William, David Beckham, Kate Beckinsale, Stanley Tucci, Jude Law and Eric Bana.
At the conclusion of this five-set, five-hour marathon, TV commentator John McEnroe described it as the greatest tennis match he has ever witnessed and Djokovic described the experience as the most mentally grueling match he has ever played. Anyone who watched this match knew that it was two against one with the tag team of the crowd and Roger fighting Novak all by his lonesome.
It is not perfectly clear why the crowd favored Roger so much. Perhaps it is due to his age (37), his finesse, his good looks, the way he dresses, his reputation as a class act, the way he moves like a cat or maybe it’s the fact that he is from Switzerland and speaks English, French and German fluently.
It is also not clear why the crowd showed such disdain for Novak.
Perhaps because he is Serbian or maybe it’s because he does not have the grace, the finesse, the looks or the style that Federer possesses. It’s true, Novak can be acerbic and at times rub people the wrong way, but the overt hostility that was felt in the usually staid and gentile All England Tennis Club was a surprise.
During his 20-minute post-tournament interview, nearly every question posed to Djokovic concerned the hostile one-sided crowd response and how he managed to cope with it.
He openly said that he and his handlers knew long before he walked onto center court that Federer would be the crowd favorite and that he knew he must remain calm no matter what the booing sounded like.
He said he visualized the hostile crowd experience long beforehand so that the crowd would not get under his skin. He remarked that a match of this magnitude against a champion as smart and talented as Federer meant that he must remain totally focused and engaged for every point in the entire five-hour match.
He was asked if he was able to ignore the shouts and hostility and he said that, of course, it was impossible but he used what he called “transmutation” to pretend to hear them shout “Novak, Novak, Novak” when they chanted “Roger, Roger, Roger.”
The press room broke out into laughter and Novak admitted that it sounded silly, but that is exactly what he tried to do.
It is always difficult for an athlete when the crowd turns against them. Nicklaus faced this when he dethroned The King (Arnold Palmer). Larry Holmes always felt disrespected because he boxed in the era of Muhammad Ali. I think crowds are like infants and if there is one thing an infant panics about, it’s the threat that someone is about to take away its mother or father.
The crowd becomes attached to a star who has established himself. This attachment is very strong and the fan will feel dread at the thought that someone will take their parental figure away.
Someone had read a recent piece I did on nicknames and wondered aloud to me why was it that our stars are so often referred to by their first name. People like Tiger, not Mr. Woods; or Willie, not Mr. Mays; or Mickey not Mr. Mantle.
I wondered about that point and think it may have to do with the way fans grow so fond of their heroes like the way a baby becomes attached to its mother. There is deep love between infant and mother just as there is love between a fan and their hero.
So, in the end, it is not a surprise to see fans attack the new king who is trying to dethrone the old king. Such is the way of the world. In no way is Novak Djokovic the villain that the fans makes him out to be. He is charming and witty and kind both to the press and to his family and to his friends.
It is just bad luck indeed that he came along during the time of Roger Federer, the crown prince of tennis.