You'd be hard-pressed not to define the last decade of tennis by its Wimbledon Finals. Regal in color, atmosphere and rich history, the classics at the hallowed grounds of SW19 that we as tennis fans have been given in this current era of tennis have been nothing short of inspiring.
Immediately, as quickly as simple word association, we think of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and their three consecutive finals from 2006-2008 on the English grass. But beyond the spectacular play and intriguingly contrasting styles of the two superstars, what we were truly given in this golden age of tennis was a golden age of sportsmanship.
Together, Federer and Nadal lifted the sport to new global heights as the world witnessed a burgeoning era which blended eloquence, courteousness, and an undying love for the sport into one. It became almost customary for tennis enthusiasts to choose between them, and back their man loyally through thick and thin.
But along came another superstar who at first didn't shine like the world's No. 1 and No. 2 in Roger and Rafa.
Finding His Voice
Since his first slam win in 2008, Novak Djokovic was viewed more as a villain than anything else: a player with the talent, athleticism, and mental fortitude to take down the aforementioned giants and spoil tennis fans' hopes of more glory for their favorite player.
Djokovic struggled early on with gaining approval and positive sentiments from fans and pundits alike, often appearing like a confused puppy attempting to please its new owner to no avail.
Then came 2011 and a renewed Djokovic, both in body and media-driven image. The Serbian dominated the tour in a way that left all who followed his conquests with an increased desire for more. Finally, the stranglehold at the top of men's tennis had truly been untangled. There was another man to watch. But most importantly, there was another personality to aspire to.
The era of Roger and Rafa gave us a new sort of eloquent drama that taught us significance beyond winning and losing, but Djokovic's additional injection of adrenaline mixed with pleasant honesty gives this generation of tennis a totally different spin.
To elaborate, Djokovic brings the mentality from other globally popular sports to one that is inherently gentlemanly and sometimes assumed to be—albeit incorrectly—lacking in passion.
The Times They Are A-Changin'
In August 2011, Andy Roddick made reference to this shortcoming in tennis during a post-match press conference following a loss in which he had been point penalized for frustratingly hitting a ball into the stands. Via ESPN:
"I do think it's stupid in tennis that I mean, in [American] football if someone throws a helmet on the sideline it's their helmet, you know, and we wonder why we lose a ratings battle to the WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment], Monday Night Raw... At a certain point, you know, you hit a tennis ball into a stadium, someone goes home with a souvenir, and it pretty much ruins the match from there on. It seems counterproductive, and at a certain point I'd love it if we got out of our own way."
The reason Djokovic is so vital to the formula is because he represents neither the overt aggressiveness that can be so scarily cutthroat in other sports—like the WWE—nor the mannerly, civilized or refined persona so epitomized by the on-court demeanor of Roger Federer. Rather, Djokovic exists in between, within a medium that only he occupies which neither detracts from nor diminishes the aura of greatness that Federer and Nadal have placed upon tennis.
It isn't realistic, in this day and age, to think that Federer and Nadal's genteel ways can continue to thrive in an increasingly rambunctious sporting world. While the two great champions—perhaps the two greatest players to ever set foot on a tennis court—have given us something incredibly special in both memorable contests that will live on forever and sheer brilliance of play that encouraged a sea of athletes and fans to better themselves, there is strength in composite.
Novak is fiery in victory and genuinely gracious in defeat. He has the presence of mind to mock himself in both low and high moments, whether in a press conference or in the midst of a match. But most importantly, Djokovic has the ability to lift a stadium with vigorous energy, all the while remembering to respect his competitors and the game.
All of these attributes of the 25-year-old directly contribute to widening tennis' audience beyond its current scope, an important role to assume particularly after Federer and Nadal have moved on in years to come.
He's also been known to bring a playfulness to the game, with sometimes controversial jokes or impressions that are invariably hit-or-miss. But the result is neither here nor there. Just as in the notion that the beauty behind giving isn't the gift itself but rather in its thoughtfulness, so too is Djokovic's authentic merrymaking. You may not like it, and you might even find it disrespectful, but in the end it is merely in jest, a character trait that, after years of watching the Djoker, appears truly harmless and unintended to be flippant.
An Icon For Average Joe
Djokovic, in these respects, could be considered to be the more relatable on-court personality than either Federer or Nadal. Tennis fans have placed "Fedal" on the tallest of pedestals, the closest thing to sporting worship that tennis has probably ever seen. In the case of Djokovic, we see him break down, smile after a fantastic rally or cry out in celebration with a viking's roar and we can ultimately relate, whether we like it or not. We don't relate to his circumstances per say, but simply to his emotion.
Djokovic has become the quintessential down-to-earth man of tennis, and his likability factor coupled with his on-court intensity brings something to the sport that neither Federer or Nadal had during their prime years: a heart on his sleeve for the world to see without the fear of judgment.