There was euphoria in Australia on Sunday, when Novak Djokovic, the Serbian professional tennis player, won his 18th Grand Slam after defeating Daniil Medvedev in three straight sets. Djokovic now ranks third in total Grand Slam titles in the Open Era. The two players ahead of him, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, are widely lionized for their sportsmanlike demeanor and gentlemanly behavior. Djokovic, on the other hand, has a problematic track record that includes making disparaging comments about equal pay for women and questioning the validity of COVID-19 precautions and vaccines. Yet, as opposed to Federer and Nadal, who often side with the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) over the players, Djokovic has become a prominent voice in the call for reform in tennis.
His decisions off the court frequently prove rash, and each mistake magnifies his reputation as a mischief-maker. His most recent mishap dates back to June 2020, after the ATP cancelled its tournaments because of the pandemic, giving Djokovic an opportunity to launch a player-run exhibition tournament called the Adria Tour. He carried on with the matches despite widespread criticism and demand for their cancellation due to the pandemic, none of which seemed to faze the man not always affectionately known as the “Joker.” Many see him as arrogant and even indifferent to safety, accusations backed up by the lack of restrictions placed on attendance and player interactions at his event. Djokovic’s first match against Viktor Troicki hosted around 4,000 fans, none of whom were required to test negative for COVID-19 beforehand. After a series of blunders, including a positive COVID-19 test for former world number three Gregor Dimitrov, the tour was cut short. Djokovic himself soon received a positive test as well, and the barrage of criticism continued.
Djokovic’s beef with the ATP is not limited to the COVID-19 regulations. He has long been at odds with the revenue share in tennis, arguing for more distribution among players. In 2019, Djokovic led a group of ATP players to vote against the contract renewal for Chris Kermode, former ATP Tour’s executive chairman and president. Kermode’s crime was that he’d sided with the tournaments over the players too often, which Djokovic refused to tolerate. The Serbian player became so fed up with the ATP that he decided to start his own player’s association, the Professional Tennis Players Association, which he noted is the first “player’s only” association since 1972. However, Djokovic failed to include women in his organization, leading many to wonder whether Djokovic is really an advocate for all professional tennis players.
Most recently, members of the women’s and men’s circuits worked together and signed a letter of engagement arguing for a raise in the revenue share, with stars like 2017 U.S. Open women’s champion Sloane Stephens and Djokovic leading the way. According to Vasek Pospisil, a veteran men’s singles player and co-founder of the Professional Tennis Players Association, the association’s goal is to provide more competitors with the resources needed to earn a good living. Clearly, a great deal of professional athletes in tennis feel poorly compensated for their efforts, as evidenced by the United States Tennis Association’s report that found that only about 14% of U.S. Open tournament revenue in 2018 went to the players. The players know this inequity needs addressing, but the question of who speaks for them remains an equally important issue.
Appreciating Djokovic on the court is easy. His perseverance under pressure, masterful backhand and genius return game has secured him a spot as an all-time great. But the mantle of leadership does not suit him well, and a transformation this drastic in a sport with inflexible traditions requires someone responsible who has the courage to advocate for everyone.