Djokovic's 'ugly' play robs him of deserved credit

BACK-TO-BACK-TO-BACK: Novak Djokovic celebrates winning a point during his Australian Open final victory over Andy Murray.
BACK-TO-BACK-TO-BACK: Novak Djokovic celebrates winning a point during his Australian Open final victory over Andy Murray.

The moment before David Ferrer hit his last serve of the Australian Open, he let out a howl of anguish. It was almost primeval.

Machismo is important in Spain and the fifth best tennis player in the world had just been emasculated. David's slingshot didn't have so much as a peanut left in the sack.

And still Novak Djokovic does not get the credit he deserves. The world No 1 has won five of the last nine grand slam titles. He has been in eight of the last 10 finals. He has dominated Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray during the past two years, leading each of their head-to-heads 7-3 (barring one retirement against Murray). But the greatest? Nah.

No-one disputes that Djokovic is playing in perhaps the supreme era of men's tennis, but you would have to travel to the outskirts of Belgrade to find more than the odd person who would even consider giving Djokovic the ultimate ranking. It is odd, but there is a peculiarly human reason for this oddness.

Djokovic ain't pretty. He is a jarhead in many people's eyes - although the man speaks four languages and has a great deal going on in that elongated skull - and an ugly tennis player. He crushes the ball, just as he crushed Ferrer's manhood. "Inhuman" is an adjective oft used to describe Djokovic's play.

Impossibly, he led Serbia to a Davis Cup triumph. He is the rise of the machine. And we are threatened by it. We have always liked our sportsmen and women to play the beautiful game. That is why Federer is so beloved. His tennis is a thing of beauty. He evokes adjectives and passages from the world of arts.

Germany's Stern magazine once said of Federer, "Watching him play tennis is like watching Michelangelo at work on the Sistine Chapel." It is a ludicrous comparison. Watching Michelangelo at work would have been like watching paint dry. And besides, a lot of the daubing was done by assistants. But you take the point. Federer is a great artist.

Simon Barnes, of The Times, has always been particularly enamoured of Federer and that is by no means a criticism. Sport needs true believers such as Barnes. The columnist has described Federer as the Harry Potter of tennis and wrote "beauty was the art with which he destroyed his opponent".

Barnes has also invoked Shakespeare, saying Federer's matches are no more boring than Hamlet just because you know how it will all end. But then "there are actually people who believe that art no longer exists in tennis. That was modern art."

Unfortunately, Djokovic is biomechanics or some such other "boring" science. Tiger Woods lived on the edge of both worlds, the biomechanic freak and the artistic genius, but he had enough of those fist-pumping moments of supernatural magic to enchant us all. Besides, he was black and beautiful, big pluses in the largely white media world. In comparison, Djokovic looks to some like a white East European immigrant worker and their brains are screaming warning, warning.

The great Dutch football team of the 1970s is still revered because of the way it played the game. Beautiful orange. Even the colour of their shirts made a difference, just like the sunny yellow of Brazil. But Germany, black and white, the footballing machine, beat the Netherlands in the end. And we are still grieving for such an outcome.

We crave a beautiful frailty in our athletes. We even elevated Muhammad Ali to the status of greatest athlete of the 20th century. He wasn't even the greatest boxer. But Ali beat bigger and stronger men with words and grace and cunning and movement. And he was beautiful. And he spouted revolutionary nonsense. So all good then. Or make that, "The greatest".

It is not true, but then beauty has always blurred the truth. And it makes it harder to see Djokovic for who he really is. Nick Bollettieri, the innovative tennis coach, calls Federer "a magician". In contrast, Bollettieri describes Djokovic as "the most complete player of all time. Strength, speed, technique - no-one has ever had such a package like Djokovic. The longer the point goes, the longer the match goes, the stronger will be Djokovic. But no-one but God wins all the time."

Even the man who spent a career building tennis machines - Agassi, Sharapova, Courier, Seles - reaches for the supernatural word "magician" to describe Federer and the prosaic "package" to sum up Djokovic. Maybe Bollettieri is wary of a man who plays sport in dark socks.

The Serb has also been smeared by smartly phrased articles on drug use. But if one points the finger at Djokovic, why not Federer, who never seems to be injured and hails from a country that once specialised in murky over-the-border administrations, or Nadal, who was a physical phenomenon, or Murray, who gets stronger year by year.

I do not say that Djokovic has yet exceeded Nadal as the greatest, just that he deserves a great deal more consideration than he receives. It would help his cause if the Serb completed the career slam by winning the French Open, although he has a better clay court record than Federer and the absence of the French never seemed to harm the Swiss's claims.

But more than anything "Nole" needs to win beautiful. The third set of tennis that he played against Ferrer was the best that I have ever seen. No man could have lived with it. It was almost ... inhuman.

Fairfax Media