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Djokovic uses Wimbledon ‘disrespect’ as fuel while chasing another title

Tennis star always reaching for motivation, even from suspect sources
Novak Djokovic of Serbia gestures to the crowd as he is interviewed after defeating Holger Rune of Denmark in their fourth round match at the Wimbledon tennis championships in London, Monday, July 8, 2024.(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Novak Djokovic is just one example of a superstar athlete who manages to find motivation wherever possible. Serena Williams, Michael Jordan and Tom Brady are others who come to mind.

With Djokovic, it often derives from — or at least his perception that there are — crowds who are against him. At Wimbledon, the 24-time Grand Slam champion was certain that people in the stands were drawing out the pronunciation of his opponent’s last name to sound like they were booing … and Djokovic, to use a meme-generating phrase associated with Jordan, took that personally.

He objected to the “disrespect” he thought was being directed his way at Centre Court on Monday night while moving a step closer to an eighth title at the All England Club.

“I played in much more hostile environments, trust me,” Djokovic told the rowdiest folks there. “You guys can’t touch me.”

It’s not the first time Djokovic was riled up by spectators cheering against him — he famously described pretending chants of “Roger! Roger!” (as in Federer) were actually his own two-syllable name, “Novak! Novak!” — and probably won’t be the last.

Djokovic, who will be back on Centre Court on Wednesday against Alex de Minaur, turns it into fuel.

“Some of the greatest athletes of all time feel slighted a lot. They use it to give them inspiration: ‘I’m going to beat you,’” James Blake, a former professional player who reached No. 4 in the rankings, said Tuesday. “In the grand scheme of things, what went on yesterday wasn’t a huge deal. But he used it for motivation, so good for him. I’m sure it’s not easy every day. You’re the greatest of all-time already and you want to push yourself to beat someone that’s fired up to play you. So you use whatever you can use.”

As 2003 Wimbledon runner-up Mark Philippoussis described it, Djokovic “wants to hear ‘boo,’ to be honest with you, because it makes him play better. If I were to play him, I’d just give him compliments on a change of ends.”

Djokovic was asked after his straight-set victory over Holger Rune — “Ruuuuuune!” sounds like “Boooooo!” — in the fourth round Monday whether there’s anything that could be done about over-the-top interjections from the seats.

He said he doesn’t think so and acknowledged that ticket-holders can support whichever player they want.

There are those who like that element of the sport.

“It’s kind of good, too, when you see emotion from players, when someone gets upset or annoyed. It’s theater,” former top-10 player Alicia Molik said.

“Often, it’s silent, but (players) have to take a bit of the noise and the vocal fans at the same time. Maybe if it was the U.S. Open, no one would notice as much, because we’re so used to it being so loud,” Molik said. “But at Wimbledon, there’s a bit more of a hush, isn’t there? So probably every word muttered is a little magnified here.”

Another player who was sensitive to what was being said in the tournament’s main stadium on Monday was Alexander Zverev, the two-time major finalist who was wasted a two-set lead and was beaten in five by Taylor Fritz.

When their match ended, Zverev complained to Fritz about things he heard coming from the American’s guest box — not his coaches, but from people “that are not maybe from the tennis world, that are not maybe (used to) watching every single match; they were a bit over the top.”

Unlike Djokovic, Zverev wasn’t able to enjoy getting the last word in the form of a victory.