Who is afraid of Novak Djokovic?

by Biagio Carrano

Oops! Corriere della Sera has done it again! A little more than a year after the character assassination press campaign following the revocation of permission to compete at the Australian Open 2022, yesterday’s cover of the weekly magazine of Italy’s first daily newspaper featured the Serbian champion’s face with a rather gratifying headline: ‘Novak Djokovic – Destined to be the Baddest’.

In times of war (and related propaganda) words are weapons, that is weapons of mass normalisation. And Djokovic is certainly not normal. The extraordinary victory at the AO2023 was a slap in the face for all those who had enjoyed his exclusion last year, denigrating him as a smartass, an unfair and arrogant player, and many other negligible epithets. The triumph in Melbourne, the tears he shed while he hugged his family members, the touching words of his speech ‘I appeal to every child, search until you find someone who will believe in your dreams’ – all this should not be epically recounted as ‘the hero’s return’.

Ergo, Marco Imarisio has taken the trouble to present him almost as a demonic character, ‘a polarising, … bipolar character‘, who will never be loved like Federer but ‘loathed at least as much as Lendl‘, ‘because both things are true, his obvious need to be loved, and his constant urge to ensure that this does not happen, as if he were obliged to follow the call of an identity that forces him into isolation, into incomprehension. A dissident against his own will, the standard bearer of a minority that constantly seeks the approval of the majority. It is a paradoxical condition that makes him a slave to himself, to a strength and a weakness both stemming from his own roots‘.

And you’d think that it’s the usual ethnic framing, him being a Serb, his legitimate patriotism and his still pointing the finger at the 1999 bombing, because, unlike the other Serbian children of 1999, Djokovic is the only one who can point the finger at the bombing today from the heights of his planetary success.

Yet the question remains. Why, in a sport, since the days of accepting Connors’ and McEnroe’s rants, insults, hysterical acts and the pelting of opponents, is Djokovic not forgiven for anything? What actually makes him different and disturbing to the well-meaning, inconsolable widows of Federer’s algid elegance and Nadal’s timid agonism?

Reviving the victimhood of Serbs would help little to understand, even less so in the case of an uncommon character like Djokovic. What is disturbing about the Serbian champion is not even him being a Serb (there are many excellent Serbian athletes playing around the world), and even less his temper tantrums (just think of the recent intemperances of Fognini, Tzitzipas, Kyrgios, Moutet and Andreev, Sonego and Nadal), but precisely his exceptionality.

A child who discovers his vocation at a very early age and at the age of six declares that he will become the No. 1 in the world, a teenager who declares that he will catch up with and beat Federer and Nadal only to do so two months later, a man who returns to the top of the world tennis rankings at an age when many tennis players are in their waning phase – these are traits of a certainly exceptional individual, sustained by unyielding willpower. In a conformist and mediocre age, that is truly frightening.

Ours is an age where the highest aspiration is maximum conformism, where intelligent kids are destined for a master’s degree that makes them as functional as possible to the financial capitalism, where exceptional individuals, with precocious and unusual talents, often, inevitably, with complicated and hypersensitive character, are treated with Ritalin as children and as misfits when they grow up, in any case, destined for economic, and often social, marginality.

We live in societies that are fearful, insecure and uncertain, even liquid and with fluid identities. Non-choice prevails in everything, and in civilised conversations, any heated confrontation is avoided. Anyone who manifests strong convictions is viewed with suspicion, considered a fanatic or exalted. But it is precisely this obsessiveness that creates genius, in politics as in art, in sport as in life choices.

On the contrary, every study, passion, interest, and even curiosity must bend to be adaptable to the demands of the indistinct society. And so the path of meditation and awareness cultivated by Djokovic by frequenting gurus and religious exponents is seen as an index of mental instability, “parascientific abstrusions smelling of the new age” (Imarisio again), not as an example of strength and inner growth. Because the meditation that mainstream journalists like is not the one that questions yourself and channels your abilities, but the one that makes you simply accept reality, perhaps with a smirk of peaceful submission: which, after all, is the result that Italian journalists aspire to, ‘accept reality, not understand it’.

Yet just a generation or two ago, people were strongly fascinated by the eminent, even divisive character. The nerd in the classroom was an object of derision, while the brilliant braggart who did well studying for half an hour was an object of admiration. Today, no, the nerdy son appeases his parents from an early age, all certain that he will follow a nice conformist path and will not risk going down blind alleys for being too bold.

Just a generation or two ago there were Rock ‘n’ Roll and protest singers, bearded and long-haired individuals who often spread ideals, perhaps naive and superficial, but certainly capable of challenging the status quo. Today, we have pathetic and inoffensive imitators of rock like Maneskin or the trappers, for whom money and sex are life’s goals, just as much as the clean-shaven manager.

We are reminded of James Hillman: ‘Why does exceptionalism come across as suspect? Do we reject it because inspiration frightens us, as we see it as an individualistic and aristocratic state of mind, that privileges communication with spirits over communication with peers? But won’t a culture that imagines inspiration as an asocial drive cling ever more tenaciously to a merely flat mediocrity?” (The Soul’s Code. In Search of Charachter and Calling)

Here then, the point of this article is not to defend Djokovic, but his exceptionalism, because every one of his victories or stances, precisely because they are often indigestible to the prevailing conformism are, in reality, a service to society, which since ancient times has relied on heroes, on eminent and particularly gifted characters, to take the exploration of human limits beyond known boundaries. The hero has no obligations of consistency, is not moral and does not persuade with rationality: he responds to the call of his character by becoming himself an inspiration for others to pursue their personal exceptionalism, within the limits of their talents. This is truly destabilising in an age that has made social stability, a comfortable and empty life, and reassuring conventions the totems to which everyone must bow.

So it was not winning the Australian Open 2023, making it his 22nd ATP Tour title, that was Novak Djokovic’s most important achievement, but, being able, as a winner inspired by his genius, to appeal to children around the world and urge them “to chase their dreams, to dream big, to nurture them like flowers, and to seek out those who will ultimately believe in them and help them realise their dreams”.

By Biagio Carrano

This post is also available in: Italiano

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