A thinker and scholar, Novak Djokovic introduced a word probably never heard before in a media conference at Wimbledon: transmutate.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, transmute means “to change or alter in form, appearance or nature and especially to a higher form.”
It was how Djokovic said he tried to block out the Wimbledon crowd’s overwhelming support for Roger Federer – perhaps the most popular player the sport has ever seen – in the Serb’s wild, dramatic and unpredictable victory over the Swiss in nearly five hours in Sunday’s final.
“At times you just try to ignore it, which is quite hard,” said the 32-year-old Djokovic. “I like to transmutate it in a way. When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger,’ I hear ‘Novak.’ It sounds silly but it is like that. I try to convince myself that it’s like that.”
Djokovic smiled but deep down, not having much of the crowd behind him must have hurt the now 16-time grand slam winner.
“Of course if you have the majority of the crowd on your side, it helps, it gives you motivation, it gives you strength, it gives you energy. When you don’t then you have to find it within.”
Up against it
Djokovic barely showed any emotion Sunday over the five-hour epic final. He drew jeers on one occasion after tamely striking his racket against a courtside microphone near the umpire’s stanchion in the fifth set. The only other time, he fist pumped – quietly – after winning a 23-shot rally in the third-set tiebreak.
A muted Djokovic perhaps could have been a factor into why his performance dipped alarmingly at times.
Why so restrained? In his semifinal win over Roberto Bautista Agut, Djokovic pointed to his ear to ask the crowd to show him more love after winning an even longer rally, 45 strokes, the longest in recorded Wimbledon history.
Winning the extended exchange fired him up and he proceeded to cruise for the majority of the last two sets.
But the reaction against Bautista Agut counted against him among traditionalists. For Djokovic’s critics, it was just another reason to castigate him.
Indeed that he asks for the crowd to get behind him – and it wasn’t the first time – seems to displease many.
That behavior is fairly routine in team sports but in the eyes of some, tennis is a different, more polite sport where such emotion shouldn’t be tolerated.
Djokovic’s peer Nick Kyrgios said this about him in May: “I just feel like he has a sick obsession with wanting to be liked,” the brash Australian uttered in a podcast with tennis journalist Ben Rothenberg.
“Like he wants to be like Roger (Federer). I just can’t stand him. This whole celebration thing he does after matches, it’s so cringeworthy,” he added, referring to Djokovic’s gesture that’s been described as “boob throwing” online.
“If I play him and I beat him, I’m doing his celebration in front of him,” added Kyrgios. “That would be hilarious.”
An uphill battle
Kyrgios is no saint, mind you.
And it’s worth noting he gets along with Federer and Andy Murray, so would only have good things to say about them.
Conversely, he isn’t close with Djokovic or Rafael Nadal.
But even when Djokovic lets his tennis do the talking, he still plays third fiddle to Federer and Nadal.
On Sunday, a huge chunk of fans inside the stadium cheered his errors, including double faults.
The atmosphere, however, was relatively tame compared to when Djokovic lost to Federer at the French Open in 2011. That day it was like Federer played for France in a Davis Cup final at home in a decisive fifth match.
To be fair to the French supporters, they got behind Djokovic in 2016 as he completed his grand slam collection at Roland Garros.
Not the fan’s favorite
Besides trying to whip up the crowd, some don’t like his chuntering, incessant ball bouncing prior to serves – especially on important points – and roars in both celebration and dismay.
Retiring from matches when younger, his occasional brash talk – he thought he had the better of Nadal at the 2006 French Open despite being down two sets, then retiring – and imitating players’ serves could be lingering in the minds of fans with long memories.
Go back to the 2007 US Open when Djokovic copied the serves of Nadal and Maria Sharapova after a win and it sure seemed like the fans in New York loved it.
Don’t forget that Federer threw plenty of rackets in his younger days while Murray chirped at his box and didn’t win any contests for body language.
Their behavior changed and Federer in particular has a following like no other in tennis.
Once Federer and Nadal retire, it is likely Djokovic will become a sentimental favorite and all his achievements – by that time, he could have taken over the men’s grand slam lead while also having winning records against the duo – will be appreciated.
He won’t be begrudged for taking away grand slam titles from the sensational pair who came before him.
So even if he may never be as popular as Federer or Nadal, getting beyond their grand slam hauls could be big enough consolation for the Serb.