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What Are You Rooting for When You Root for Novak Djokovic?

As the U.S. Open begins, the enigmatic Serb is back in the top 10 in pursuit of his 14th major—and once again, he’s chasing the shadows of tennis greatness

Novak Djokovic AP Images/Ringer illustration

Novak Djokovic is a contortionist. He always has seemed to be stretching to be not only victorious, but also iconic, like his rivals. He’s contorted himself in search of a new image, one that would call for the creation of statues and poems and books penned by obsessed fans. He’s known for bending his body, the dimensions of the court, and time during points and matches and even entire seasons in search of this image. Djokovic is a man out of time, not in the way that Armie Hammer seems like he belongs in a black-and-white Superman television show or even in the way that Roger Federer is a 360p athlete half-volleying in a 4K world, but in that Djokovic seems to exist with no temporal home. It’s not that he could belong somewhere else; it’s that often it feels like he doesn’t even belong here.

His pain is not the muscular-suffering-in-triumph of Rafael Nadal or the mental-suffering-in-not-quite-triumph of Andy Murray or the slow spiritual death of a former champion now robbed of his magic, like a post-comeback Bjorn Borg. Djokovic has suffered in victory and defeat because no matter his accomplishments, this era will never be his.

Djokovic always has tried hard. He’s tried so hard that it is worth noting his try-hard-ness even among a field of competitors driven from a young age to narrow their focus to the pursuit of trying hard. Earlier in his career, after struggling late in tournaments against Federer and Nadal, he began monitoring everything—his diet, his schedule, the speed of his chewing—trying even harder in search of an edge. “If many of his competitors reside in a county jail of their own making,” wrote Lauren Collins in The New Yorker, “Djokovic inhabits a supermax prison.”

His playing style, too, is one of controlled, voluntary stress. Blessed with supreme vision and a nearly robotic ability to calculate angles, Djokovic’s game is still without a clear weapon, a kill shot or a crutch. He opts to suffer, to do the most obvious yet most difficult things, to paint the lines again and again and again, to run between sidelines and burn up his organic protein shakes, while waiting, knowing his opponent will crack first.

Through struggle, through tweaks and maintenance and hyperattention, Djokovic has quite nearly squeezed himself into a conversation that was already loud enough, and has almost become a part of a story already given to two of the most compelling figures in the history of tennis. Federer and Nadal can seem like ideas now, like hard light constructs of intangible qualities. Djokovic has tried to find a place beside them as a man hitting a tennis ball very, very well. It is something of a surprise that he has even come this far.

Though, if there is anything that can ease the chronic pain of being a great within the world of greaters, it is the temporary euphoria of holding trophies. And, lately, Djokovic has managed that again. Earlier this summer, after going more than two years without winning a major, the Serb won his fourth Wimbledon. Last week, in Cincinnati, he won the only Masters title that had eluded him, beating Federer in the final. After months outside of the top 10, where he had been a mainstay for more than a decade, he returned to 10th after his win in London, and then to sixth last Monday, where he is now at the beginning of the U.S. Open.

Depending on whom you ask, this could be either Djokovic’s second or third or fourth life on tour. But only the most obtuse fan would try to tell you that he’s not back.

A little more than two years ago, of course, Djokovic wasn’t just winning, but winning so much and so easily that it seemed like he could make room-temperature water into a fad. Before the dreadful 2017 season in which he won just two tournaments and plummeted in the rankings, shrinking from the spotlight just as Federer and Nadal recaptured it, Djokovic had become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four majors at once. He won 17 of 21 tournaments of note in 2015 and 2016 (in three of those four tournaments he didn’t win, he lost in the finals). He was, unthinkably, maybe even more unstoppable than Federer and Nadal had been during their best stretches. But of course, things unraveled.

It’s not clear, still, what happened. In late 2016, Djokovic messily split with coach Boris Becker, and then months later parted, more cleanly, with new coach Andre Agassi. He missed months at a time with various vague injuries. In 2017, he didn’t play the U.S. Open, missing his first major in 12 years to rehab his right elbow. Tabloids whispered about marital troubles. He started the 2018 season by notching six wins and six losses in his first 12 matches.

At Wimbledon in July, it wasn’t totally clear that things had changed until the tournament was over. Djokovic’s run through the draw was a Capgras delusion; he still looked his sinewy, gluten-free self, he hit that same loopy forehand, he slid into returns of fourth-hour Nadal groundstrokes like it was 2012, but there was an unshakable feeling that none of it was the real thing. And yet, there he was: doing his weird shoveling celebration after outlasting Nadal 10-8 in the fifth set of their two-day semifinal match, and then publicly disemboweling Kevin Anderson a day later, the way he, Federer, and Nadal had always done with outsiders who managed to find themselves playing in major finals. Everything was the same, but in some indescribable way, Novak Djokovic still didn’t look quite like himself.

No place looks more like itself than Queens. The home of the U.S. Open, starting Monday, will again play host to Djokovic, with his thousands of pre-serve bounces and his definitely-not-ice-cold water. It will host Federer and Nadal, and even Murray, too. If Djokovic wins his third Open, it will be his 14th major, a freakish accomplishment which also doesn’t mean so much anymore. Numerically, the goalposts are moving. To become the most decorated man in the history of tennis would require Djokovic to win in New York, and then replicate his feat seven more times, at least. Not an impossible feat, sure, but one that is exhausting to even think about.

Were Djokovic to compete in a different sport, it would probably be said that he has a branding problem. He is not easily distilled into words or inspirational slogans. His logo, a knot of loops and edges, doesn’t connect with people as much as Federer’s elegant now-detained-by-Nike initials or Nadal’s symmetrical bull’s head. After all the titles and the ball bounces and the down-the-line backhands, it’s still hard to answer the simplest question: What are you rooting for when you root for Novak Djokovic?

Perhaps this is why fantasizing about Djokovic winning eight more slams, to me, can feel less appetizing than mulling over Federer’s floating permanence or Nadal’s cringing persistence or, say, Juan Martin del Potro’s gentle, longing look at another major. With Djokovic, it’s hard to get a sense of just what the victories are supposed to feel like.

Over the past dozen years or so, he’s worn many faces: He’s been the clown, the machine, the health nut, the desperate middle child, the defeated shadow. He has a new mask now, or perhaps he’s just stopped wearing one at all. Maybe that’s what created that dissonance at Wimbledon. His face is a moonscape cratered by the defeats that he’s worn over the past couple of years. After losing the U.S. Open final in 2016, Djokovic said that he was no longer obsessed with winning majors, that tennis was “not the only thing in the world.” You get the sense now that the machine could break down, but that it also might not be such a calamity if that were to happen. Maybe that’s what we’re supposed to root for.