The Serb Novak Djokovic is a tour-de-force in the tennis world. His achievements on the court include but are not limited to 20 (and counting) Grand Slam titles, five ATP World Tour titles, and 326 weeks (and counting) as the number one-seeded player. He is the only player in the Open Era to achieve a double-career Grand Slam and a Career Golden Masters. In addition, he is considered one of the most mentally tough players on the circuit.
Djokovic is one of the “Big Three” who have dominated the tennis scene over the last 18 years. Together with Switzerland’s Roger Federer and Spain’s Rafael Nadal, the three compete in what many consider the golden era in men’s tennis. The troika has won a combined 275 career titles (including 59 Grand Slam titles), three Olympic gold medals and $495-million in prize money.
Among the Big Three, Djokovic in recent years has become the dominant force. Although he is one Grand Slam behind Federer and Nadal, he has a superior head-to-head record against Federer (27-23) and Nadal (30-28). Federer and Nadal had the luxury of amassing Grand Slam titles when Djokovic was not yet the force he is today. By the time Djokovic won his second Grand Slam at the 2011 Australian Open, Federer had already won 16 Grand Slam titles while Nadal had won nine. Since then, Djokovic has won an additional 17 Grand Slam titles compared to four and 11 additional Grand Slam titles won by Federer and Nadal, respectively. However, despite Djokovic’s dominance over his other Big Three counterparts, a hierarchy of whiteness plays out in the West, which elevates the western Federer and Nadal over the Eastern European Djokovic.
During the emergence of the Age of Enlightenment, Western thinkers theorised a hierarchy of races that put the white race at the top of the racial totem pole, blacks at the bottom, and Asians between the two. Those on the black side of the colour line might be surprised to hear that a racial sub-hierarchy exists within the white side of the colour line. Though the ramifications for those at the bottom of the white racial hierarchy may not be as vicious as those faced by blacks, it is still painful for the victims.
What type of white?
Thus, there is a two-tier classification of whiteness in today’s world where the West (comprising the United States, Western Europe, white Australia, white Canada and white New Zealand) sits at the top, and those from Eastern Europe are relegated to the bottom. This asymmetric treatment of Eastern Europeans vis-a-vis Western Europe can be seen today in the anti-Russia sentiment in Western Europe. It would appear that every evil ill is laid at the feet of Russia, be it cyber-attacks, political manipulation, espionage, even though the West is not immune from committing such acts.
Anti-Eastern European sentiment was also prevalent in the build-up to Brexit. Before 1 May 2004, the 15 countries that were part of the European Union were Western countries. Up to that time, there was little grumbling about the influx of European immigrants into Britain. However, from May 2004, eleven Eastern European countries joined the European Union. The political elites exploited people’s fear of the Poles and Romanians in Britain, which eventually led to Britain’s departure from the European Union. One week after the Brexit referendum, hate crimes increased fivefold. According to Jon Fox of the University of Bristol: “The spike in hate crimes that followed the Brexit vote in the summer of 2016 serves as a poignant reminder that Eastern Europeans are still ‘not-quite-white’.”
Just as this racial hierarchy plays out in the geopolitical sphere, it also manifests in Djokovic’s treatment on and off the tennis court. Despite his contribution to tennis, Djokovic is one of the most disrespected multiple Grand Slam champions after the Williams sisters, who have experienced their fair share of racism in tennis. The New York Times once described Djokovic as the Unloved Champion. Unlike Federer and Nadal, who get favourable treatment from the media, tennis fans, tennis sponsors, and the tennis aristocracy, Djokovic’s case is the reverse.
Similarly to how sponsors elevated Maria Sharapova over Serena Williams, despite the latter’s domination over the former, sponsors are more favourably disposed towards Federer over Djokovic. According to Forbes World’s Highest-Paid Athletes List, between May 2020 and May 2021, Federer earned $30 000 in on-court field earnings compared to Djokovic’s $4.5 milion. However, Federer earned $90-million in endorsements to reach number seven on the rich list. Djokovic, in contrast, made $30-million in endorsements and was 46 on the rich list.
At the 2021 French Open, when Djokovic was about to serve against Nadal, he was given a time violation for taking his time to serve. In response to the warning, the fans at Roland Garros jeered at Djokovic. Paradoxically, Nadal is notorious for taking his time to serve, yet people don’t jeer him. One tennis enthusiast wrote in Men’s Tennis Forum: “Since the beginning of tennis, there was never a player who took more time during points than Rafael Nadal.” At the 2020 Australian Open, Nadal accused the umpire of “not liking good tennis” after being slapped with a time violation.
I was at Wimbledon’s centre court when Djokovic played Federer in the 2019 men’s singles final and witnessed fans jeering disrespectfully at Djokovic and cheering when he made errors. Boris Becker said: “Federer is the greatest of all time here and has the right to get that love, but on the other side you have to respect a four-time champion [Djokovic] a little bit more.” At the 2019 US Open, when Djokovic played Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round, he retired from the match due to a recurring shoulder injury. When the umpire announced Djokovic’s retirement, the fans booed. As he left the stadium, they continued to jeer him. Nadal and Federer’s medical time-outs are rarely questioned, a luxury that Djokovic does not enjoy.
He has also had his fair share of criticism from the media. Before the commencement of the 2021 Australian Open, Djokovic sent a six-point list of requests to Craig Tiley, tournament director at the Australian Open, concerning the plight of the 72 players serving a 14-day rigid quarantine. In response, the media attacked him for sending the letter. In addition, Djokovic has been put into a defensive position for his stance on the Covid-19 vaccination. In April 2020, he said he didn’t want to be forced to take a vaccine to travel, but he would have to make a decision if it became compulsory. A year later, when goaded by the media for his position on the vaccine, he said: “I will keep the decision as to whether I’m going to get vaccinated or not to myself, it’s an intimate decision and I don’t want to go into this game of pro and against vaccines, which the media is unfortunately creating these days.” Some sections of the media have described him as an anti-vaxxer and sitting on the fence over the vaccine.
The West’s bias against Djokovic has not gone unnoticed by those close to the tennis champion. Djokovic’s father, Srdjan Djokovic, noted that the “Western media have only focused on Federer and Nadal and didn’t pay any attention to Novak. That was the only way to stop him.” He also observed that there was an emergence of players from outside of the West: “Westerners have to understand that we also know something about life. And most importantly, we know how to hit that ball. They thought that would never change but, to their regret, Novak has changed [it]. Now there is a great invasion of great young Russian tennis players.”
After Djokovic captured his 9th Australian Open crown this year, his coach Goran Ivanisevic identified racism as the reason for the massacre of hatred directed at Djokovic: “In the last year it seemed to me as if I am watching that film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. “Why is he being treated that way? Probably because of his background . . . people from [the] Balkans are always looked at differently; also, Novak is not afraid to speak his mind and to fight for causes he believes in.”
My critics may say, “What has race got to do with it?” They may argue that Djokovic is not a likeable character, is arrogant or is treated that way because he disrupted Federer and Nadal’s dominance. Some suggest he tries too much to please people. They might use the West’s acceptance of Maria Sharapova, an Eastern European, as an excuse to nullify claims of xenophobia against Djokovic. These counter-arguments cannot withstand analysis. For Djokovic, it is a case of “damned if I do and damned if I don’t”. On the one hand, when he complains about being penalised or organises a tennis event during a pandemic, he is criticised. But, on the other hand, when he gives a boy his tennis racquet, defends lower-ranked tennis players or draws a love heart on the court at the end of his victory, his detractors dismiss him as trying too hard to be likeable.
The West’s acceptance of Maria Sharapova, the Russian tennis player, is an exception that proves the rule. She is adored for two reasons. First, because she was once viewed as the antithesis to Serena Williams. Sharapova’s defeat of Serena at the 2004 Wimbledon ushered her in as the great white hope to end the dominance of the Williams sisters. Second, according to the doctrine of white supremacy, being white, blonde-haired and blue-eyed are the ultimate expressions of whiteness and racial purity. Hence why she enjoyed the privileges that Serena and Djokovic could only dream of.
Those who argue that Djokovic’s treatment has nothing to do with his Eastern European heritage should research tennis history to understand that his ordeals are not new. In addition to being a lily white sport, tennis also has a very pro-Western bias. Since the Open Era began, the media has idolised Westerners such as Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
We’ve been here before
One could say Djokovic is the heir to Ivan Lendl, the Czech tennis ace. Like Djokovic, Lendl was a player of Eastern European heritage; like Djokovic, Lendl dominated his rivals, and like Djokovic, Lendl did not get the due respect he deserved. Lendl, who reigned supreme between 1983 and 1990, won eight Grand Slam titles and was the number one-ranked tennis player for 270 weeks (fourth in the all-time list), and won 94 single titles (third in the Open Era). He had superior head-to-heads against John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander and Boris Becker.
As the Western media disrespected Lendl, it gave more prominence to his rivals. Sports Illustrated featured Ivan Lendl on the cover page of its September 1986 issue with the disparaging headline, “The Champion That Nobody Cares About.” John Feinstein of the Washington Post, in an article titled, Champion of Apathy: Lendl’s Attitude Sours Regard for His Skills, wrote: “His style is so mechanical, his manner so joyless that, in spite of the brilliant tennis, he is, for most people, not much fun to watch. He is so methodical between points, so slow, that he can become maddening.” Post-retirement, Lendl’s contemporaries such as John McEnroe, Boris Becker and Mats Wilander have become high-profile commentators working for various Western media houses analysing the Grand Slam while Ivan Lendl is ignored.
In today’s world, some other players of Eastern European heritage find themselves shunned by the West. Sophia Kenin, the 2020 Australian Open winner, is an American tennis player of Russian origin. She was born in Moscow, and her parents are Russians. Among the current American tennis players, she is the most successful after the Williams sisters. Despite this, she hasn’t received the recognition and acceptance that she genuinely deserves. Daniil Sergeyevich Medvedev, the Russian tennis professional player, faced the ire of Western fans at the 2019 US Open when the crowd inside Louis Armstrong Stadium booed him during his win over Spaniard Feliciano Lopez. After his victory, Medvedev thanked the jeering crowd for inspiring him to victory.
In conclusion, it is not a question of if but when Djokovic transforms the Big Three into the Big One. The West needs to come off its high horse and realise that tennis is no longer the exclusive preserve of white tennis players. To paraphrase Daniil Medvedev, the negative energy the West unloads on Djokovic is enough for his career. The more negativity he receives, the more he will continue to break records and the hearts of his detractors. By the time Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic hang up their racquets, they would have consigned the notion of white supremacy in tennis and Western tennis hegemony into the dustbin of history where it belongs.