Novak Djokovic sits atop the ATP Tour. Yet his standing with tennis fans seems mired somewhere in the middle.
Apparently, it's easier for Djokovic to win titles than fan support.
Unless he's playing before a Serbian crowd, Djokovic is neither despised nor beloved. In fact, fans seem unsure how to treat the reigning king of tennis.
Often the favorite to win the match, Djokovic gets mixed reactions from tennis fans, despite his usually jovial demeanor.
Of course Sunday, Djokovic was up against Federer, a legend, adored worldwide.
Djokovic is more of a regional dish, savored by Serbians. In a 2012 60 Minutes interview, former Serbian President Boris Tadic said Djokovic was improving his country's reputation.
Outside of Serbia, Djokovic is viewed as the third wheel, arriving uninvited to the Federer and Rafael Nadal party.
Djokovic's disconnect with fans is reminiscent of the lukewarm relationship Ivan Lendl shared with tournament-goers.
Lendl played during an era full of some of the game's biggest personalities, including Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. He never received the fans' adulation. He never seemed to want it. Often indifferent, Lendl never played the court jester like Djokovic.
Unlike Lendl, Djokovic tries hard to reach out to fans. He dances, sings and imitates other players. He plays an exciting brand of tennis, sprinting and sliding into points.
One of the problems for Djokovic is that he came late to the party. Before Nadal arrived on the scene, Federer dominated the ATP Tour. Fans grew to love him. He had a few challengers, such as Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt early on. However, Federer won fans over with charm, grace and a boatload of trophies.
When swashbuckling Nadal arrived, he delivered what Federer could not provide on his own: a serious rivalry. The Federer-Nadal matches became must-see viewing.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, comes this elastic, gluten-free Serbian. With the fanbase so polarized between Federer and Nadal, Djokovic played the interloper. Who invited you?
Andy Murray arrived later with his desperate British loyalists. Murray hardly oozes likability. He doesn't have to. He's British, and that's enough for plenty.
Instead of being recognized as a unique entity, Djokovic was lumped into "The Big Four."
Nowhere is Djokovic's lack of love more evident than when he plays against Federer.
According to ASAP Sports, when asked about the Indian Wells crowd's overwhelming support for Federer, Djokovic told reporters that he understands.
Well, look, first of all, with all the success that he had throughout his career, he's somebody that's been around the tour for so many years. Plus, he's a great guy on and off the court... and I'm sure it's normal that he has the support, major support anywhere he goes, especially When you're looking for the support of the crowd it's maybe ‑‑I did feel I had my support, but, you know, majority was in his side. That's something that's normal. I don't really get upset for that. I expect that.
Still in the prime of his career, Djokovic already has eight Grand Slam titles. In previous eras, eight Slams would qualify a player as legendary.
Yet Djokovic is third in Grand Slams won among active players. He believes the fan support will come with longevity.
I have to earn my, I would say majority of the support here or any other tournament, you know, with the time spent on this level, with the titles, and with my responsibility as somebody that is on the top of the men's game. You know, on and off the court have to carry myself in the right way, and then hopefully one day the people will get to recognize that even more and more.
Careful to avoid sounding as if he were complaining, Djokovic wanted to make it clear to reporters that he gets some support. "I actually think that I have lots of supporters. And I do appreciate that very much, that when I play Roger it's something that you expect that he has more support because of who he is."