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The people vs Novak Djokovic

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History does not record how Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal passed the 78 days during which Nato bombed Yugoslavia. Novak Djokovic, who turned 12 as he sheltered, has cause to remember his movements. Those who would begrudge this man his hard edges might consider where he got them.

At some point, perhaps New York next month, the Serb will become the greatest male tennis player ever. (Four more slams and the sex-qualifier will go.) At no point will he have been the most admired: not even second-most, not even of his era.

The mystery is why. His style is attritional, say purists, as though angels weep when Nadal plays. People who lived through Federer’s gold-monogram phase cite ego issues. Old fans of John McEnroe, that “character”, rue his temper. You are left snatching at theories as though he were first-serving them. The eternal hairline? Is it that annoying? The nationalism: how many in the lukewarm crowds even know of it?

True, he crashed a sparkling party a decade ago. But the break-up of “Fedal” (the Washingtonian in me prefers the portmanteau “Federal”) was no ruder than Nadal’s own usurpation of the Swiss. Stylistically, in fact, it was less of a shock. Nadal was soon allowed out of that parvenu role. Djokovic remains forever tolerated. And to judge by the crowd in Paris last month — “Tsitsipas! Tsitsipas!” — it is not just these two who get the nod over him.

Bound out of a traumatic youth in sunny form, and the trauma adds nothing to your appeal. If you crawl out scarred and prickly, expect no licence for those foibles

I am inclined to blame the personality-worship of tennis, the favoured sport of people who don’t like sport. (No one in football demotes Lionel Messi for his blankness.) But even this won’t do.

Djokovic is the most expansive and curious of the big three. He is not just multilingual but absorbed by the learning. He roams well east of his Serbian Orthodoxy for beliefs or at least practices. Whether or not his diet stems from “quantum physics”, how telling that he cares.

His critics don’t even get his real flaw right. It is not the bionic coldness that Slav athletes have had pinned on them since Rocky IV, so much as its near-opposite. A man who maintains a “gratitude journal” and “connection with my own soul” has too open, not too closed, a mind.

And if his personality were the kind you can cut your fingers on, how could it not be? Without whitewashing life in Basel or Mallorca, 1990s Belgrade was quite the hardship posting.

The riddle of the unloved champion defeats me, almost. I don’t quite know what irks people about him. But nor am I surprised that his background counts so little in mitigation.

Novak Djokovic of Serbia at the Men’s Singles Final against Matteo Berrettini of Italy at Wimbledon in July
The unloved champion: in the men’s singles final against Matteo Berrettini of Italy at Wimbledon, July © Getty Images

In 20 years in and around politics, one truth has taken a while to register on me. A “back story” counts for almost nothing. It brings little understanding from the public. It earns zero latitude for personal flaws. Even aside from natural present-bias, voters have lots of reasons to discount the biographical. Those who had a benign start in life want no reminding of their dumb luck. Those who didn’t want no reminding of their failure to reach escape velocity.

Childhood hardship did not help John Major against Tony Blair. Its lavish opposite did not bar Donald Trump or Boris Johnson from People’s Tribune status. When politicians beat their social betters (Bill Clinton vs George HW Bush), it is only incidentally because of their background. As hard as it is to isolate variables here, I sense that back story, a politico obsession, decides almost no election. The same holds in business. People prefer Stowe School’s Richard Branson to even a mild version of the hard-face-and-short-fuse kind of self-made man.

If you bound out of a traumatic youth in sunny form, the trauma adds nothing to your appeal. If you crawl out scarred and prickly, expect no licence for those foibles. This is no less true in the workplace than in the public square. I have seen careers stall over it.

Given what Djokovic comes from, his personal intensity is natural. But he gets no pass for it. He is judged as Federer and Nadal are, despite formative differences that include a birth on the harsh side of the Iron Curtain. How often we prefer the idea of “mobility” to its individual case studies.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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