File photo of Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic.(Getty Images)
File photo of Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic.(Getty Images)

Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic: Thin line between the loved and loathed

  • The young woman tennis champion is hailed for speaking out on social issues but the Serb 18-times Grand Slam champion has been criticised for his views.
By Rutvick Mehta
PUBLISHED ON FEB 22, 2021 11:53 PM IST

Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic, winners of the Australian Open, might be the current face in the contrasting tale of the “Gen Next v Old Guard” tussle in women’s and men’s tennis, but they’ve walked a similar path leading up to the title.

Both hit a career low at different points in 2020; both had to go through profound experiences during that phase; both have felt the urge to speak up about issues close to their heart but to opposite consequences; both put last year’s challenges behind them to begin the new season as champions.

For the 23-year-old Osaka has evolved on and off the court since her emotionally-charged maiden Grand Slam win at the 2018 US Open after defeating Serena Williams in the final. Her fourth Slam title at the 2021 Australian Open reflects her maturity in handling the weight of expectations. For it was in Melbourne Park last year that Osaka, the defending women’s champion, cut a sorry figure while addressing the media after her straight-sets third-round defeat to American teen Coco Gauff.

“This one hurts a little bit more,” Osaka said after the loss. “… I’m sort of, like, the vessel that everyone’s hard work is put into. And I wasn't able to do what I was supposed to do.”

If that start to the year wasn’t gutting enough, the Japanese’s return to the national team after one year was welcomed with a 6-0, 6-3 thrashing in the February Fed Cup tie by then world No. 78 Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain. It ended up being Osaka’s last appearance before the tennis season was suspended. After a match where Osaka committed 50 unforced errors, she said she was finding it hard in “dealing with some stuff”.

Whatever that stuff might have been, Osaka found the time and mental space to address it during the five-month pause owing to the pandemic. She also found her voice in the meantime—speaking out loud and clear about racial injustice in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The same person had struggled to construct a sentence during her first title victory speech at the WTA Indian Wells a couple of years ago.

She began talking on the court too once tennis restarted. Osaka is yet to lose a match she has entered to play in since, a run spanning four tournaments and 21 matches starting from the Western and Southern Open last August. The stretch contains a second US Open title, this time while riding the pressure wave.

“The thing that I’m most proud of is how mentally strong I’ve become,” Osaka said after her Melbourne victory. “I used to be really up and down. I had a lot of doubts in myself. The quarantine process and seeing everything that’s going on in the world, for me it put a lot into perspective.”

Djokovic had to deal with a rather unexpected process for that perspective. On either side of the pandemic-induced break, Djokovic was untouchable. He began 2020 by winning 26 matches on the trot with titles at the ATP Cup, Australian Open and ATP 500 Dubai Open before the break and ATP Western and Southern Open after it.

Bring on the US Open, he said. Out you go, they said.

Djokovic was dramatically disqualified in the fourth round after his swipe at a ball in frustration at the end of a point accidentally hit a lines judge. “This whole situation has left me really sad and empty,” the Serb wrote in an emotional social media post. “… I need to go back within and work on my disappointment and turn this all into a lesson for my growth and evolution as a player and human being.”

In the heat of the battle, Djokovic had broken racquets, vented his frustration to the crowd and argued with umpires, but had never been defaulted. It was a notorious first for the world No. 1. And it played its part—Djokovic failed to win three of the next four tournaments, exiting from the French Open final, ATP 500 Vienna quarter-finals and the semis of the year-ending ATP Finals. The man who couldn’t lose a tournament at the start of 2020 couldn’t win any of the three to end it.

Three months later, Djokovic was back at his Happy Slam in Melbourne. A 14-day quarantine and an abdominal injury midway notwithstanding, Djokovic became Australian Open champion for a record-extending ninth time.

“Emotionally (this) was one of hardest tournaments I had, to be honest, with quarantine and a lot of things happening in the media,” the Serb said after his win on Sunday.

The “things happening in the media” was about the list of suggestions he had sent to the Australian Open organisers to ease the restrictions on players quarantining in Melbourne and Adelaide. “The next thing you know within a couple of days I’m persona non grata in this country,” Djokovic added.

Not for the first time was Djokovic made to feel that way for being outspoken, quite different to how Osaka is perceived at being that—a sporting icon lending her voice to highlight social and racial injustice and sexism in the society (Osaka called out Tokyo Olympics chief organiser Yoshiro Mori for his “ignorant” sexist remarks that women speak for too long in meetings. He has since resigned.

Djokovic faced a backlash from various quarters for his anti-vaccine views last year, for forming a rebel player council amid the pandemic and for seeking to ease restrictions on his fellow players during the Australian Open hard quarantine.

“Of course it hurts,” Djokovic said of the constant criticism. “I’m a human being like yourself, like anybody else. I have emotions. I don’t enjoy when somebody attacks me in the media openly and stuff.

“Of course, I cannot say I don’t care about it or whatever. But I think I’ve developed a thick skin over the years to just dodge those things and focus on what matters to me the most.”

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