The loudest cheers Novak Djokovic received Sunday night were during the trophy ceremony after he won his second U.S. Open title, a brief moment that the world No. 1 had the crowd on his side. Throughout Djokovic’s rain-delayed four-set victory, the vocally partisan fans at Flushing Meadows had given his opponent, 34-year-old Roger Federer, the majority of support.
Even Federer, who has won 17 Grand Slams and is widely adored for his on-court accomplishments and non-tennis charity work, was not expecting the type of reaction he received at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“To receive the crowd support that I did receive, I don’t consider that normal,” Federer said during his post-match news conference. “I always say. Say like it feels like you’re winning, as well, but I felt like I was sort of up in the score, they kept me going, and that’s definitely one of the reasons I still keep playing, because of these moments, goose bump moments. It’s great.”
In contrast, the crowd seemed to be just as opposed to the 28-year-old Djokovic as they were in favor of the Swiss, cheering after Djokovic’s errors and occasionally shouting before his serves. In his news conference, a reporter said to Djokovic that “the crowd was [as] against you as I have never seen.”
Djokovic, for his part, refused to bad mouth the fans, which according to reports, also booed and jeered him during the three-hour, 20-minute match.
“I can’t, you know, sit here and criticize the crowd,” said the 28-year-old from Serbia. “On the contrary, you know, I think it’s logical to expect that a great player and a champion like Roger has the majority of the support anywhere I play him. You know, I would say super majority of places around the world are going to give him that support.”
“I accept the fact,” Djokovic continued. “You know, everybody has a choice to support a player that they want to support, and he absolutely deserves to have the support he does because of all the years and success that he had and the way he carries himself on and off the court. No question about it. Me, I’m there to earn the support, and hopefully in the future I can be in that position.”
While fans have the prerogative to support and cheer against whomever they choose, a disdain for Djokovic among tennis fans seemed to manifest itself in a way that made the crowd come across as disrespectful or rude toward Djokovic, who now has 10 career Grand Slam titles after winning three of the four majors this year.
“He so wants to be loved,” the New Yorker’s Gerald Marzorati wrote Monday in a piece entitled, “When Will We Appreciate Novak Djokovic?” “But there is no tennis stadium in the world where those in the seats are rooting for him, and this is especially true when he is playing Federer or Rafael Nadal. Maybe he came on too strongly with the goofy humor in his early days. That he is intelligent and decent and a brilliant player does not seem to be enough.”
This was not the first time Djokovic has had the New York crowd turn against him. In 2008, the then-21-year-old got into a verbal back-and-forth with now retired American star Andy Roddick and the fans responded by showering him with boos. Since then, Djokovic has taken steps to improve his reputation. He is no longer the player who retires during big matches or bounces the ball a dozen times before serving. Earlier in the tournament, Djokovic danced with a fan while donning a “I heart N.Y.” T-shirt after a victory.
But these appeasements from Djokovic may not be enough for some tennis fans. His chest-thumping and shirt-ripping ways on court may never appeal to fans who admire Federer’s regal confidence or Nadal’s fighting spirit.
“One could also detect a tinge of cultural superiority in the disapproval that wafted toward Djokovic from the guardians of the game,” the New Yorker’s Lauren Collins wrote in 2013. “A suggestion that he was perhaps not a real European, an old-regime, advertiser-pleasing, tradition-respecting champion in the mode of the feisty Spaniard or the elegant Swiss.”
ESPN’s Peter Bodo also noted Djokovic’s muted celebration after his victory. By the time Djokovic tossed three tennis balls to the crowd, as is customary after matches, most of the fans had dispersed.
“Surely his restraint had something to do with the respect he feels for Federer,” Bodo wrote, “leavened with the sense that spiking the tennis ball would do little to improve his standing with a tough New York crowd.”
But the reaction could be explained by the fact that Djokovic is not Federer, who despite being No. 2 in the world has not won a Grand Slam since the 2012 Wimbledon.
“My strong feeling is the crowd response last night was far more about love and respect for Federer than it was disrespect for Djokovic,” said Liz Clarke, who has covered tennis extensively for the Washington Post. “N.Y. crowd loves an underdog and though peerless, Federer, at his age, was an underdog.”
And perhaps only then, when Djokovic is no longer favored to win matches entering the twilight of the career, will he receive the ovation that was saved Sunday night for Federer.