Filip Bondy: The only thing Novak Djokovic can't win is the love of the tennis world

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NEW YORK — Novak Djokovic won again Friday night, which is a bit like reporting that Donald Trump has posted an insult on Twitter or that teenagers are partying without masks.

This is not news anymore. It’s just background noise, a muffled rumble of thunder, at the U.S. Open. Djokovic’s 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 victory in the third round over Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany provided less-than-zero suspense. At 3-all in the first set, Djokovic won the next five games, to go up a set and a break. There was no coming back from that, of course. The 28th-seeded Struff struck the ball hard. Djokovic didn’t mind in the least, using his speed and renowned counter-punching ability to wreck yet another opponent in one hour, 43 minutes.

“It was a very good performance,” said Djokovic, who will likely wear down Pablo Carreno Busta in the Round of 16. “I moved well. I found my way. The second and third sets were a great thing. I’ve been playing well, training well, focusing on the right things.”

Whenever the invincible Djokovic wins these days, it is necessary to roll out the statistics: He is 26-0 in 2020, having captured 29 straight matches since last November (Guillermo Vilas won 46 straight in 1977). At age 33, he is the oldest man left in the singles draw, yet he is the heavy favorite here to win an 18th major title (Roger Federer has 20; Rafa Nadal, 19). He’s won 20 of his last 21 matches in Grand Slam tournaments, and 600 career matches on hardcourt.

On it goes. He is a remarkable athlete, fit, determined. It is hard to imagine anybody in this draw taking him out in a best-of-five.

Unfortunately for Djokovic, all this winning does not make him the darling of many tennis fans anywhere outside Serbia. Despite his heartfelt efforts to be adored, this articulate man remains a third wheel on the Federer-Nadal e-bike. The absence of those two cherished stars at Flushing Meadows casts a shadow on the whole tournament, and on Djokovic’s impending title.

It’s always been hard to love Djokovic. The guy has several problems, a few of his own making. He is a fantastic tennis player, yet he is not always fun to watch. He is the 1994 Knicks, the 1989 Pistons. His defense, his confounded patience and physicality, all neutralize the very stuff that makes tennis matches so much fun to watch. Djokovic is maddeningly consistent and remarkably flexible — hence his Gumby nickname — but he doesn’t leave a singular imprint on the mind’s eye. He is not as elegant as Federer; not a topspin maestro, like Nadal.

Djokovic tries very hard to win over an indifferent audience, saluting fans by blowing kisses and thrusting his arms toward the four corners. He’s still performing that post-match ritual at the Open, to an empty stadium. At least one player, Nick Kyrgios, finds the spectacle annoying.

“I just feel like he has a sick obsession with wanting to be liked,” Kyrgios said, on a No Challenges Remaining podcast. “He just wants to be like Roger… He just wants to be liked so much that I just can’t stand him. This whole celebration thing, it’s so cringeworthy.”

Then there is Djokovic’s activism on behalf of his fellow pros. He resigned recently as president of the ATP players council to front a breakaway organization, the Professional Tennis Players Association.

He wants to give the touring pros more leverage with the ATP. In theory, that is a good thing. Yet there is opposition from Federer and Nadal, who believe the COVID-19 situation should not be complicated further and that the recently-appointed ATP chairman, Andrea Gaudenzi, should be given more time. Andy Murray, meanwhile, has made the good point that any new association should include the women.

Djokovic says he spoke this week with Serena Williams about that. He still lacks the endorsement of many players.

“They don’t think it’s the right time,” Djokovic said. “That’s fine. That’s their opinion. I disagree with that. I think it’s kind of never a right time and it’s always a right time. For a players association, it’s always the right time, and it has been the right time for the last 20 years. Somehow it was never really accomplished, never really realized. Right now it is. We are moving forward.”

You cannot blame his peers for thinking that Djokovic is too impulsive. He may be painstakingly patient during rallies, but has not demonstrated that trait off the court. He organized the outlier Adria tour in Serbia and Croatia this spring during the worst outbreak of the virus. He was taped at the time having unmasked parties with other players in closed, indoor quarters. Four participants, including Djokovic, tested positive for COVID-19. So did his wife. Djokovic was also quoted as saying he wouldn’t want to take a vaccine against the disease, which only made him appear more irresponsible.

Perhaps most damning, he has at times appeared insensitive toward the economic realities facing lesser-ranked players. Before coming to New York, Djokovic complained about the possibility that he would not be permitted to bring his entire support team to the Open. Many competitors have only one coach, and rolled their eyes at that complaint.

He is staying in a private home during this tournament, rather than in the hotel provided by the tournament, and doesn’t seem to understand that others can’t afford that luxury. That allows Djokovic to avoid the sort of secondary COVID contact problems that have troubled French players Kristina Mladenovic and Adrian Mannarino.

Private housing, however, is an expensive option, including payment for both rent and COVID-related security cameras.

“Any player had that opportunity,” Djokovic said. “It’s not the privilege of the top guys or girls. Anyone that wanted to spend money and stay in the house, he or she could have done that. I know there’s very few players that have chosen to stay in a house, but it is a personal choice.”

A personal choice, reliant on personal resources. If Djokovic wants to rule the tennis world, he should better understand the real-life hardships facing his electorate.

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