Djokovic’s greatness under-appreciated due to subtlety

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Novak Djokovic won the U.S. Open in four sets.

Tony Schwab, Contributing Writer

As he won the U.S. Open in four sets, Novak Djokovic had to listen to the same pro-Federer crowd that always seems to follow him. In Queens, it was worse than usual. At the Australian Open he is considered one of the greatest players ever, earning him some respect. At the French Open he gets sympathy for having never won. At Wimbledon, everyone is supposed to act politely. But in New York, at the largest of the major stadiums, the spectators had no reason to hold back. They cheered not only when Federer hit a great shot, but also every time Djokovic faulted.

He is not, despite what some people say, a boring figure. Djokovic grew up in war torn Serbia, knows five languages and, by doing great impressions of his rivals and female players, is funnier than Federer or Nadal. So why — even when he is undoubtedly the greatest player today with a chance of being the greatest player ever — do people not warm up to him? Djokovic, like so many teams and players in sports, excels in a style based on fundamentals and consistency in a time when style is valued above all else.

Djokovic wins by outlasting his opponents. He hits groundstroke after groundstroke deep towards to baseline. He can move and stretch to return what should have been winners. Against Federer this was crucial as Djokovic was able to return drop shots in plenty of time, leaving Federer to watch balls fly past him. Djokovic plays long rallies extremely well, returning shots until the other player eventually nets the ball. Overall, he makes his opponents beat themselves. This is as good a strategy as any, but to the casual viewer it looks less like Djokovic is playing really well and more like his opponents always play poorly.

The San Antonio Spurs are another famously “boring” group of champions. They try to play selflessly in a league that is built around stars. They sign less big-name free agents than most teams and are extremely committed to developing younger players, so much so that their best veteran players are often rested to free up time for them. Strategically, they try to have each player available for many different roles, which is brilliant but too subtle for those who don’t know the game well. All these things have brought them great success over more exciting opponents like Miami and, in earlier years, the seven-seconds-or-less Suns.

So why don’t subtle strategies catch on with the public? It’s not that people don’t devote time to trying to learning about sports. Most people, even those who only watch sports casually, are exposed to a decent amount of information. But the sports media, ESPN in particular, seems less concerned with educating the public about the complexity that makes a sport great than with focusing on the shallowest, most mundane gossip. How much time have you spent watching ESPN speculate over whether Tim Tebow could make it in the NFL, and how much time have you spent watching any sort of explanation of the reasons that he can’t? It probably isn’t close.

ESPN might argue that viewers want entertainment more than they want subtlety. Sports can’t properly entertain those who don’t know how they work. Sure, they may like the idea of a certain personality or rivalry, but can this alone really justify spending entire days watching a long game? For someone who only cares about whether Tebow ever makes it or whether someone can get revenge on the Patriots for Deflategate, what is the point of watching regularly? The people who will really watch consistently, even when there are less storylines going on, are the ones who love sports for the strategy, complexity and the million different ways that even an average game can play out. Those involved in sports would do better to teach people to love Djokovic, the Spurs and everyone else who devotes themselves to winning no matter how little glamour is involved.

Email Tony Schwab at [email protected]