Novak Djokovic will still be fuelled by tension with ‘Big Three’ rivals and the Race to 21

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Is there real animosity here, or just professional rivalry? The world’s top tennis players are experts at discretion, to the point where their team members often have to sign non-disclosure agreements. Still, it’s clear that Djokovic remains a gooseberry in the great “Fedal” bromance.

The odd hint crops up on the court. You might remember Federer scoffing that Djokovic had beaten him via a “lucky shot” at the 2011 US Open, or telling Djokovic’s parents to be quiet during a match in Monte Carlo three years earlier.

More telling, though, is the ongoing debate about the future of the game. Players tend to put on-court issues to one side, when it comes to their private lives. They understand that competition is bound to come with a spiky edge. It’s what happens backstage – and particularly within the murky world of tennis politics – that lingers.

Even Nadal and Federer, bosom buddies though they are, have clashed over political issues. Back in 2012, when they were both on the ATP Player Council, Nadal complained about Federer’s very Swiss neutrality. But it remains the only time, in almost 18 years of rivalry, that they have rowed in public.

Djokovic stayed away from tennis politics during this early period of his career. He “only” owned four majors at the time, and was still busy proving himself on the court. But when he did sign on to the ATP Player Council, in 2016, he soon began asserting himself in a typically doubt-free manner. The two elder statesmen had stepped down by this stage, but must have wondered if they had erred by leaving Djokovic in sole charge of that forum, as he effectively became when Andy Murray also left in 2018.

Behind the scenes, 2019 was a particularly tense year. Nadal was openly critical of Djokovic’s insistence that the men’s tour needed new leadership. Another sore point arose when Djokovic argued against a donation from the ATP player fund to the recent Mallorca floods – a very personal cause for Nadal.

These might seem like minor quibbles, but Djokovic’s abrasive qualities are as evident in his political career as they are in his tennis. In every facet of his life, he wants to be The Man. Not just The Man who has won more consistently than anyone else, but The Man who led his peers out of the wilderness into a brighter, better-paid future.

His supporters see this as selfless and admirable. Others feel that he has a remarkable knack of turning every issue into a debate about himself. When Djokovic pulled off his ATP coup – ejecting Englishman Chris Kermode from the chief executive’s role in the spring of 2019 – Federer complained that he hadn’t been consulted. His solution? A nice chat with Nadal, putting to world to rights over coffee at his rental house in Indian Wells.

In politics, on the court, and in their stance on Covid, the same story applies. There might be three players in this marriage. But only two of them see eye to eye.

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