Gladiator: Novak Djokovic and the quest to be loved

  Novak Djokovic at the 2010 US Open. That year and the next, he would eerily make an incredible shot against Roger Federer in the semifinal to come back and win. In this year’s all-Balkan semifinal, he’ll play last year’s winner, Marin Cilic, Friday.

Novak Djokovic at the 2010 US Open. That year and the next, he would eerily make an incredible shot against Roger Federer in the semifinal to come back and win. In this year’s all-Balkan semifinal, he’ll play last year’s winner, Marin Cilic, Friday.

Well, God has finally dropped everything else, and the planets have aligned (including my beloved little Pluto).

The New York Times has finally bit the bullet and done it: It’s running a piece on Novak Djokovic in the Men’s Style section Friday. 

That must really have killed The Paper of Record (which could also be called The Paper of Roger Federer). Apart from the inexhorable Serena Slam watch, The Times’ US Open coverage has been much Roger, much of the time. The Gray Lady is like a royalist longing for the Stuart Restoration, just waiting for the once and future king (that would be Feddy) to rid the world of that Cromwellian imposter (that would be Nole) and assume his rightful title as US Open/Wimbledon/French Open/Australian Open champ and eternal No. 1. (And how fascinating is it that one of Nole’s Peugeot commercial echoes this meme?)

But the Nole article by David Shaftel, who apparently interviewed Nole during the Rogers Cup, is titled “Novak Djokovic is No. 1, Like It or Not.” And we know that for The Times, the answer is Not. It’s not that the coverage isn’t respectful and respectable. (Although it’s certainly weird. Shaftel describes Nole as “startingly slight” and then projecting “strength and sturdiness” with perfect posture. Huh? Perhaps not surprisingly, The Times’ great rival, The Wall Street Journal, does a much better job with Nole, including a nice cover piece in one of its Style mags, which is far superior to The Times’ T magazine.)

But mainly, there’s no real warmth to The Times’ Nole article. It’s a dutiful checklist. Nole is disciplined (we revisit the godawful gluten-free diet, the only thing I don’t like about Nole) – check. We meet the cultured linguist – check. We see the meditative seeker – check. There’s a nod to wife Jelena and baby Stefan. Just about the only Nole we don’t meet is perhaps the most sympathetic one, the ambassador and humanitarian for Uniqlo and UNICEF.

Where’s the love? Ah, but as Shaftel notes in the opening paragraph:

Novak Djokovic has spent most of the last four years as the world’s No. 1 ranked tennis player, but he is not necessarily the people’s champion. Having finally overtaken the affable, urbane superstar Roger Federer and his longtime foil, Rafael Nadal (a popular underdog), Mr. Djokovic knows the crowd is not always on his side. But that has only steeled his resolve.”

Let’s leave off for the moment, shall we, the amusing description of the haughty Feddy Bear as “affable” and the ferociously competitive and successful Rafa as an “underdog.” Has the realization that he is not the favorite child steeled Nole’s resolve? At the US Open – never his best event, despite how great a hard-court player he is – he often begs for the crowd’s approval, putting a finger to his ear for applause or holding up his arms as if to say, with Russell Crowe’s Gladiator, “Are you not entertained?” (This drives my sister Gina, an ardent Federina, nuts.)

Who can forget that moment four years ago during his rise to the top when Nole, newly crowned No. 1, was down two sets and match point to Rog and made an instinctive, rocket return, more in anger than calculation, that had no business being good – or so an annoyed Roger implied later, he not being one to compliment a conqueror – and came all the way back to beat him and then Rafa for the championship. After shocking Fed on that point, Nole raised his hands as if to say, “See. I can be great and lovable, too.”

But the needy quest for love is, not so ironically, what often prevents a great performer or athlete from being loved. (See Jim Carrey and Jerry Lewis.) It detracts and distracts from Nole’s performances – and it seems at times to distract him. He, a highly intelligent man, should understand that New Yorkers, like the ancient Romans or any other group, are the mob. They love you. They hate you. They love you again. They don’t know you. They try to write on your soul what they want you to be. But in your soul, you’re still free.

Alí Iskandar, one of the tennis-playing heroes of my debut novel “Water Music,” is a lot like Nole in this. He doesn’t just want to be great. He wants to be loved for it. It’s what frightens his ironic, more emotionally detached lover, tennis star Alex Vyranos.

But in “The Penalty for Holding,” the forthcoming follow-up in my series “The Games Men Play,” star quarterback Quinn Novak keeps the fans at bay. He understands they’re yours today. They’re someone else’s tomorrow. Love is a state of being. You can’t earn it. People either love you – or they don’t – for who you are. Not what you do.

But that’s OK. For this then finally is love – not that we are loved but that we love and go on loving, even in the void.

I don’t know. Maybe as a writer and a person I’ve just grown up.