Why does the world hate Djokovic?

His records are unrivalled, but his unconventionality is a letdown for fans


Kosovo is the heart of Serbia. Stop the violence,” Novak Djokovic, the controversy-prone hero of men’s tennis, wrote on a television camera after his first round victory at Roland-Garros this year. French Sports Minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra said what he did was inappropriate and issued a warning, but Djokovic said he stood by his statement. “I would say it again… Of course I am aware that a lot of people would disagree, but it is what it is,” he said.

While writing Kosovo on the camera, Djokovic knew that he would invite the wrath of the west, the main benefactor of the tennis universe. But it did not stop him from articulating his beliefs.
It (THE WAR)made me a better tennis player because I swore to myself that I would prove to the world that there are good Serbs, too.” ―Novak Djokovic
Djokovic loves his daily fix of celery juice, green smoothie (made of algae and spinach), greens salad, gluten-free pasta primavera and vegan cheese.
There is also a hint of racism, which some critics call the “hierarchy of whiteness” in tennis. Despite the perceived democratisation of the game, tennis continues to be white, western and upper middle class.

Serbs have not accepted Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence. They comprise a majority in Kosovo’s north, while ethnic Albanians make up more than 90 per cent of the country’s total population. Djokovic was referring to the ethnic clashes that broke out earlier this year in the northern Kosovo town of Zveçan, the place where his father grew up. The clashes occurred after ethnic Albanian mayors took office in Serb-majority areas, following elections that the Serbs had boycotted.

While writing Kosovo on the camera, Djokovic knew that he would invite the wrath of the west, the main benefactor of the tennis universe. But it did not stop him from articulating his beliefs. In that sense, Nole, as he is called affectionately in his native Serbia, has always been an outlier in world tennis. An antithesis of what the mainstream tennis watching crowd expects from their champions. It is hard for them to place him in the pantheon of legends such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, John McEnroe, Björn Borg and Rod Laver, although, statistically, Djokovic is now the best player in the world. Perhaps, even the GOAT―Greatest Of All Times. He has the most Grand Slam titles at 24, two more than Nadal and four more than Federer, and has a winning record against both. He has been ranked number one the most weeks and has won every Grand Slam and ATP Masters 1000 event at least twice. No one else has won all the Masters.

Yet, Djokovic is among the least loved champions in the world. World Sports Network did a survey recently to find out who were the most hated tennis players in the world. Djokovic was found to have received the most negative tweets at 15 per cent and Facebook posts at 11 per cent. There could be many reasons for this. Djokovic plays somewhat boring tennis and doesn’t seem to have any obvious weakness for his opponents to exploit, making his games less exciting. He loves unconventional methods, articulates unscientific theories, holds outdated views of nationalism and is not always politically correct.

1494453015 Making a point: Djokovic writes on the camera lens a political statement, “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia”, about the tensions between Kosovo and Serbia after his first round victory in the 2023 French Open | Getty Images

Djokovic’s philosophy and outlook―both on and off the field―seem to have been influenced by the savage 78-day bombing campaign unleashed by NATO on Serbia when he was growing up. He was only 11 when NATO forces started attacking Serbia on March 24, 1999 to put an end to president Slobodan Miloševic’s anti-Kosovo regime. As explosions lit up the Belgrade sky, Djokovic ran out of his apartment with his father, Srdjan, mother, Dijana, and younger brothers, Marko and Djordje. He fell face down on the street outside and, a moment later, there was a huge F-117 bomber above him.

“What happened next would never leave me. Even today, loud sounds fill me with fear,” wrote Djokovic in his book Serve to Win. The bomber unleashed two missiles, hitting a hospital a few blocks away. “I remember the sandy, dusty metallic shell and how the whole city seemed to glow like a ripe tangerine.” But the fear of death was not going to stop him from playing tennis.

1497694426 Family man: Djokovic with his wife, Jelena, and their children at Roland-Garros earlier this year | Getty Images

One of the earliest gifts Djokovic received from his parents was a mini-racket, but his formal introduction to tennis was accidental. His father was an accomplished skier, but the Djokovic family had no tradition of racket sports. The extended family operated several small businesses during vacations in the resort town of Kopaonik, 250km south of Belgrade on the Kosovo border. Perhaps by a quirk of fate, the Serbian government chose Kopaonik to set up a small sports complex, which had three tennis courts. Barely four then, Djokovic loved to watch young players practise there. He was spotted by Jelena Gencic, who was running a summer tennis clinic. She had earlier coached Monica Seles and Goran Ivanisevic, and after spending a few hours with Djokovic she knew that he was a special talent. Djokovic probably knew, too, as he told her that he wanted to be number one in the world. Gencic, whom he called his “tennis mother”, turned out to be a major influence in his life. She introduced him, besides tennis, to Pushkin’s poems, Chekhov’s stories, and western classical music and planted in him a never-say-die attitude.

Back in Belgrade, their partnership flourished. Gencic was every bit as tenacious as the young Djokovic. Although she lost her sister in the NATO bombing, she would accompany Djokovic for practice, picking up sites based on where the bombs had landed the previous night, hoping that the same spot would not be targeted twice in a row. Tennis became literally a matter of life and death. “The war made me a better person because I learned to appreciate things and to take nothing for granted,” said Djokovic. “It also made me a better tennis player because I swore to myself that I would prove to the world that there are good Serbs, too.”

Time out: Djokovic on vacation at Marbella, Spain | Getty Images Time out: Djokovic on vacation at Marbella, Spain | Getty Images

When Djokovic turned 12, Gencic persuaded his family to trust his prodigious talent and send him to Germany to join an academy run by her friend, former Yugoslavian player Nikola Pilic. It was not an easy decision. The family had to pool in its resources. They exhausted their savings, sold whatever jewellery they had and took out loans at exorbitant rates. “For 17 years, we lived in rented accommodations. Sometimes landlords evicted us. I could not sleep at night and I would walk down the street. Sometimes the police would arrest me,” remembers his father.

Djokovic turned professional and began competing on the ATP Tour in 2003. By then, Federer and Nadal had established themselves as players to watch out for. The early days were not easy. There was a time when Djokovic was a frail, unhealthy player who would break down frequently in the middle of matches. Even after winning his first Grand Slam in 2008, he could not make much headway, getting lost in the shadow of the Federal-Nadal duopoly.

Djokovic’s inconsistent health soon became a matter of concern. On January 27, 2010, he was playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and had a two sets to one lead. But he started losing points steadily from the fourth set onwards, complaining of breathlessness and fatigue. The commentators described it as yet another bout of asthma. But a Serbian doctor, Igor Cetojevic, who was watching him on television, did not agree. Cetojevic, an expert in alternative medicine, felt that Djokovic’s woes were the result of the accumulation of toxins in his large intestine.

Persuaded by his wife Francesca, Cetojevic met Djokovic at a Davis Cup tie later that year in Split, Croatia. He asked Djokovic to stretch out his right hand, while keeping the left hand on his stomach. He then pushed the right hand down, which Djokovic could resist easily. But he could not do so after a slice of bread was held against his stomach. Cetojevic convinced Djokovic that it meant that he was allergic to gluten, a protein present in wheat. Following his encounter with Cetojevic, Djokovic made a drastic change to his diet, giving up not just wheat, but all processed food, dairy and refined sugar. A couple of years later, he made his diet entirely plant-based.

TENNIS-ATP-LAVER-GBR Friends and rivals: Djokovic with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at a practice session during the 2022 Laver Cup in London | AFP

Djokovic these days loves his daily fix of celery juice, green smoothie (made of algae and spinach), greens salad, gluten-free pasta primavera and vegan cheese. In an episode of his Instagram series ‘Conscious Living’, he spoke about how he fasts for 16 hours a day to induce “autophagy,” the body’s cellular recycling system. He said dietary modifications took him from the “brink of failure to be the champion of the world”.

The year after he met Cetojevic turned out to be one of the greatest seasons ever for Djokovic. From a one-slam wonder, he won all the Grand Slams except the French Open, and finished the year as number one. The amazing turnaround perhaps changed Djokovic in more ways than one. He started promoting wellness fads and pseudoscience, like the claim that it is possible to make pure water dirty by directing negative energy towards it and to purify impure water with positive thoughts. In an interview with his wellness guru Chervin Jafarieh he said, “I know some people who, through that energetic transformation, through the power of prayer, through the power of gratitude, managed to turn the most toxic food or maybe the most polluted water into the most healing water, because molecules in the water react to our emotions.”

1090208072 Mirror image: Djokovic with tennis great Ivan Lendl during the presentation after winning the 2019 Australian Open | Getty Images

Djokovic once had a life coach, Pepe Imaz, who apparently taught him telepathy and levitation. During an interview in 2018, Djokovic spoke about his telepathic powers. “I feel like these are gifts from this higher order.” Djokovic has endorsed a product called Taopatch, a nanotechnology device that, according to its promoters, combines light therapy and acupuncture. The Taopatch website claims that it “converts natural body heat into microscopic beams of light to stimulate the nervous system”. Djokovic once said that the product was one of the biggest secrets of his success.

His pilgrimages to the Bosnian town of Visoko are well known. He loves to visit the ‘pyramid of the sun’, a hill that he says has magical properties. “There is a truly miraculous energy here,” he said, much to the amusement of the journalists who followed him there.

1237787059 August company: A mural depicting Djokovic (centre), his first coach Jelena Gencic (left) and his grandfather Vladimir Djokovic (right) in Belgrade, Serbia | Getty Images

Djokovic’s obsession with natural remedies sometimes borders on the extreme, even affecting his health and career. In 2016, he suffered an elbow injury which got worse progressively as he refused surgery. It forced his then coach, Andre Agassi, to part ways with him. Agassi said Djokovic’s unwillingness to have the surgery done was the chief stumbling block in their partnership. “He had the real hope that his elbow could heal naturally. I was not a fan of that choice,” he said. Djokovic finally agreed to the surgery, but was so unhappy about it. “I cried for three days after the surgery. Every time I thought about what I did, I felt like I had failed myself,” he told the Telegraph. His wife, Jelena, said the surgery went against his core values. “It was like he buried one part of him with that decision. He said: ‘I’m done, I’m not playing tennis anymore, I lost this, I’m not having fun anymore, this is it.’”

While most of his unusual food and lifestyle choices were dismissed as an extraordinary champion’s eccentricities, a major setback came during the Covid-19 pandemic, after he voiced his opposition to vaccinations. Djokovic ignored the fact that the Serbian government had administered more than eight million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine and even offered cash incentives to get people vaccinated. Although he donated a million euros for buying respirators and other medical equipment, he publicly expressed doubts whether a vaccine could beat a virus that was prone to mutations. Instead, he placed his trust in diet restrictions and behavioural practices. “I am curious about empowering our metabolism to be in the best shape to defend against impostors like Covid-19,” he said. During the early months of the pandemic, Djokovic organised a series of exhibition matches in Serbia and Croatia, without taking any precautions. It resulted in a wave of infections; Djokovic himself was infected and had to cancel the tour midway.

Love all: Djokovic and his wife, Jelena, at the Laureus World Sports Awards 2019 in Monaco | Reuters Love all: Djokovic and his wife, Jelena, at the Laureus World Sports Awards 2019 in Monaco | Reuters

Things took a turn for the worse at the 2022 Australian Open when Djokovic landed in a lock-down weary Melbourne, with a dubious vaccine exemption from the organisers. All hell broke loose after the Sydney Morning Herald broke the news that the exemption was granted on the grounds that he had recently contracted Covid.

Australians reacted to the news with anger and scepticism. Conservative prime minister Scott Morrison, who was already facing devastating poll numbers, seized the opportunity and announced that his government would not grant any exception to anyone. He ordered Djokovic to be held in confinement at the Park Hotel, the infamous detention facility where refugees and asylum seekers are housed. Although a federal court freed Djokovic from custody, it said the final decision was to be made by immigration minister Alex Hawke. He revoked Djokovic’s visa and ordered his deportation.

Later, it became clear that although Djokovic had claimed in his visa application that he had not travelled in the two weeks before heading to Australia―a mandatory requirement―he had, in fact, visited Spain during that time. He later clarified that furnishing false information was a “human error”. He also admitted that he had attended an interview and a photo shoot with the French daily L’Equipe even after knowing that he was infected with Covid. There were photos of him the day after he allegedly tested positive, posing for photos with small children, everyone without masks, at a charity event. After reaching Belgrade, Djokovic blamed the media. “They have picked on me big time and not in a positive note, which has created a lot of disturbance to my brand and to me personally and people around me.”

A year later, Djokovic, still unvaccinated, returned to Melbourne, won his record extending tenth Australian Open title and tying Nadal for most Grand Slam titles. He dropped just a set and won the final in straight sets. There was barely a player in the men’s draw who could mount a challenge against Djokovic’s complete dominance. An aspect of Djokovic’s style of play, which makes it boring to watch at least for some spectators, is his machine-like precision."For a player who is supposed to be a human being just like you and I, it is hard not to watch one of Djokovic's matches and wonder if he is some type of robotic automaton," writes New York-based tennis expert Nick Nemeroff for the Tennis Island. “Federer’s effortless technical precision, grace under pressure and uncanny ability to come up with unprecedented shots allowed him to assert control over matches that the sport had simply not seen before. Nadal came along and changed the way we think about topspin forever. Djokovic’s defensive prowess is the ‘shot’ in his arsenal that is not only controlling the game, but simultaneously changing the way it can be played.” Translated charitably, Djokovic’s games can be quite boring to watch.

"He is fundamentally a conservative, defensive player," writes Park MacDougald of Washington Examiner. “His game is built around consistency, a phenomenal return of serve, and an equally remarkable ability to chase down balls that he has absolutely no business getting back in play, forever forcing his opponents to hit one more shot when they think they have already got the point.” Equally remarkable is his accuracy and the ability to find angles thus far uncovered on a tennis court, making his opponents feel like lesser mortals. “You can’t imagine how frustrating it is to hit what you think is a winner or an ace, only to have Novak send it right back,” said Andy Roddick while commentating during this year’s US Open. Djokovic also takes away the human angle from the game with his phenomenal mental fortitude. He never gives up until the last point is played.

The amount of preparation that goes into Djokovic’s game is exceptional. For instance, when he plays the US Open, he stays at the $40 million New Jersey estate owned by his longtime friend and hitting partner Gordon A. Uehling III. The hillside facility, spread on 40 acres, has courts that simulate Wimbledon’s Centre Court, Court Philippe-Chatrier at the French Open and Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York, down to the exact same surface specifications. The estate also has a hard court with a camera-and-software system developed by PlaySight, a company that makes advanced flight-simulation systems for the Israeli air force. It records every stroke and every move by a player, including the speed, spin and trajectory of the balls and point patterns, the distance covered, and the calories burned. It gives the player and his coach real time information about everything they need. It also provides charts and tables recording the evolution of a player. Every year, Djokovic travels to Flushing Meadows armed with all these details. For added measure, the estate also has a hyperbaric chamber, where you can relax while “simulated altitude pressure and a cyclical programme of muscle compression work together to enhance the body’s ability to absorb oxygen”.

Despite his meticulous preparation and ice cool temperament, there have been multiple instances of him arguing with umpires and breaking rackets. Some critics say it is all part of his strategy to upset the rhythm of his opponents. Yet, he was kicked out of the US Open in 2020 after hitting a ball in frustration during his fourth round match against Pablo Carreño Busta that struck a line judge in the throat. He immediately left the court and the stadium. Former British player Tim Henman, who was disqualified for a similar incident at Wimbledon in 1995, said Djokovic should have faced up to his mistake and apologised. “You have to be responsible for your actions on the court.” He also drew a lot of flak for launching a racket into the empty stands at the Tokyo Olympics.

Djokovic’s strategic bathroom breaks are known to throw his opponents off balance. If he feels that the momentum is against him, he often takes a bathroom break. “You mainly use this moment to reset yourself mentally, changing your environment,” said Djokovic. “Even if it’s a short break, you can have a few deep breaths and come back as a new player.”

Even more damaging for Djokovic’s image have been his views on certain subjects like gender equality. Four years ago, he launched a parallel players’ group called the Professional Tennis Players Association to ensure a more equitable distribution of prize money, but he was criticised for keeping women out of it initially. (The group now has both men and women players.) His views on gender parity in tennis have been problematic, too. When asked about equal pay for women, he once said that he would support the idea if women could bring in more fans and more money. And then he spoke about women’s bodies and their hormones, and their “fight against unspeakable biological challenges”, drawing even more criticism.

On Halloween of 2018, former American player and commentator Justin Gimelstob, who was also a member of the ATP Players Council, attacked a friend called Randall Kaplan, while he was with his pregnant wife and their two-year-old daughter. Gimelstob pushed Kaplan to the ground and punched him repeatedly in the head. Kaplan was hospitalised and his wife miscarried. Gimelstob was convicted of battery with serious bodily injury to the victim. He pleaded no contest to the charges and was sentenced to three years probation. While most players asked the ATP to drop Gimelstob, Djokovic hesitated to do so. He told a news conference that he would not support Gimelstob, if proven guilty. When a journalist pointed out that Gimelstob had already admitted his guilt in court, he said he would have to go through the court documents. After reading the documents, Djokovic said Gimelstob had taken responsibility for his actions, still refusing to condemn his behaviour.

The biggest misfortune for Djokovic as far as his popularity is concerned is probably the fact that he shared an era with two of the most-loved players ever―Federer and Nadal. When Djokovic first burst on the scene, the Fedal duopoly was at its peak and most tennis fans had already picked their sides, leaving no room for a third option. In the beginning, the young imposter was treated as a welcome distraction, someone to motivate the top duo to do even better. Djokovic’s impersonation of fellow players (he loved mimicking the mannerisms of other players on court), his fragile health and the occasional good fight found some love from the spectators. Things started changing once he started winning Grand Slams regularly, turning into a serious threat to Federer and Nadal. “The fact is that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer were at the top before Djokovic appeared, and then suddenly a guy from Serbia came and won all the tournaments. That did not please the fans,” said retired Serbian player Viktor Troicki.

The media and the advertisement machinery also played a role, perhaps unwittingly. The Fedal duopoly was an advertisers’ dream. Here you had two supremely gifted, politically correct and well-behaved gentlemen from west Europe. While the Swiss was polished, articulate and charming, the Spaniard was raw, rugged and adorable. And then came the Serb, upending their best laid plans.

Edoardo Artaldi, Djokovic’s long-time agent and manager (they parted ways recently), told Sport360 that it was difficult for Djokovic to find good sponsors and endorsements because of his nationality. Apart from the political reasons, Serbia not being an economic, political or demographic powerhouse also hurts. “Djokovic comes from a poor country. Obviously, he will find it hard to get support from a company from his country,” he said, contrasting his situation with that of his competitors. “Roger, he is the greatest player ever, but, if you see, he has Credit Suisse, Lindt, Jura… all Swiss companies. Rafa is connected with many Spanish companies.” Until 2012, Djokovic’s main sponsor was little known Italian sportswear brand Sergio Tacchini. As the company was unable to meet its commitments, Djokovic dropped it. His first major deal came after that, with Japanese brand Uniqlo. And that came largely because of non-tennis reasons. After the Fukushima earthquake of 2011, Djokovic had played a tournament with a knee brace saying “Support Japan”. Tadashi Yanai, founder and president of Fast Retailing, Uniqlo’s parent company, was moved by the gesture and approached Djokovic for an endorsement deal. “I think he has to show 10 times more than others how good he is not just on court but outside the court to have a company interested in him,” said Artaldi.

There is also a hint of racism, which some critics call the “hierarchy of whiteness” in tennis. Despite the perceived democratisation of the game, tennis continues to be white, western and upper middle class. That is probably one of the reasons why most popular champions of the game all belonged to this cohort. Ivan Lendl could never match the popularity of John McEnroe, notwithstanding his superior record. Lendl had a superior head-to-head record against Jimmy Connors, Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander and Boris Becker, too, but he never got the respect he deserved. In September 1986, when Lendl was at the peak of his powers, Sports Illustrated ran a cover on him with the title, “The Champion That Nobody Cares About”. Martina Navratilova, similarly, had to play second fiddle to Chris Evert in the popularity stakes. Similar fate awaited other great champions like Monica Seles and Martina Hingis. Incidentally, all of them were Slavs, just like Djokovic. (Lendl, Navratilova and Hingis were born in Czechoslovakia, and Seles in present-day Serbia.)

While Lendl, Navratilova and Seles are now US citizens and Hingis has Swiss citizenship, Djokovic considers himself a proud Serbian, although he lives in Monaco to save tax. Djokovic has been quite categorical in asserting the importance of his Serbian nationality and his loyalty to the Serbian Orthodox Church. As the west has had a turbulent relationship with Serbia over the years, the Serbs have been quite close to their Russian brethren. It was a Serbian student, Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, which turned out to be the immediate trigger for World War I. As the Austro-Hungarian empire declared war on Serbia, Russia came to its aid, formally joining the war. The friendship seems to have endured over the years and got cemented further when Russia remained the only major power to oppose the NATO bombing of 1999. When the UN Security Council took up a British-sponsored resolution in 2015, accusing Serbia of genocide, Russia vetoed it. So when hostilities between Russia and Ukraine broke out in February 2022, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Belgrade to support Russia. Serbia’s close association with Russia could be another reason why Djokovic is not much liked in the west.

Earlier this year during the Australian Open, a video of Djokovic’s father, Srdjan, pictured at a demonstration with fans outside Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena holding Russian flags, voicing his support for Russia, became viral. After a severe backlash, Djokoic had to clarify that his father had “no intention” of supporting the war in Ukraine. But, by then, the damage had been already done. Djokovic’s coach Goran Ivanisevic, too, hinted that racism may be a factor in the hatred directed towards Djokovic. “Why is he being treated that way? Probably because of his background, people from the Balkans are always looked at differently,” said Ivanisevic.

Djokovic’s support for far right Serbian nationalism is something the west is wary about. Apart from the Kosovo incident during the French Open, there was another controversy in 2021 when photographs of his visit to Bosnia became public, showing him meeting a commander of the ‘Drina Volves’, a unit that took part in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in which around 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed by the Bosnian Serb army. Bosnian-American scholar Aleksandar Hemon told Euronews that Djokovic promoted common tropes found among supporters of Serbian nationalism possibly because he grew up at a time when Yugoslavia was unravelling. “Djokovic is not quite capable of imagining himself outside this nationalist identity. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he is an aggressive propagandist, but he certainly complies and has met such propagandists,” Hemon said.

Djokovic, meanwhile, marches ahead steadily, completing yet another super successful season. When asked about the World Sports Network Survey which found that he was the most unpopular tennis player in the world, Djokovic quoted American basketball icon Kobe Bryant, saying he was not surprised. “Personally, I’d be surprised if it were any different. As Kobe used to say, ‘Haters are a good problem to have. Nobody hates the good ones. They hate the great ones,’” he said. “I wouldn’t change anything in my life because I’ve done everything to the best of my knowledge and abilities in a particular moment. Yes, I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but at least I was authentic, I was being myself. I’d choose that every time compared with saying whatever pleases those that abide by the standards of the establishment.””