Pity Novak Djokovic’s next opponents – he is never more dangerous than when the world is against him

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One of the nicknames bestowed upon Novak Djokovic is “The Djoker”. This felt entirely appropriate on Monday morning, when the news footage from Melbourne showed riot police firing tear gas to disperse his more fanatical supporters.

Unlike the original Joker from the Batman movies, Djokovic is no criminal mastermind. His stated intention is not “to watch the world burn”. But for a man who paints himself as a new-agey seeker after peace and love, he has a remarkable knack for creating conflict and controversy wherever he goes.

Despite mutterings about a second detainment – which could be triggered by immigration minister Alex Hawke at any time – Djokovic is still on course to get what he wants. Specifically, a crack at a 10th Australian Open triumph – and 21st major title – on Rod Laver Arena over the next three weeks. 

Should he reach the start line next Monday, you have to feel for his opponents. All the frustration and rage from his four-night spell in the Park Hotel – a cockroach-infested, flea-ridden dive which barely merits the name – will surely be vented through a few lethal swipes of his racket.

Expect those bedroom creepy-crawlies to loom large in Djokovic’s mind’s eye as he hands out a shellacking to some unfortunate first-round patsy. Admittedly, his conditioning is bound to have been affected by his brief internment. But the brain is at least as important as the body in professional sport, and his motivation will be off the charts. 

The beauty of a grand slam is that you can play yourself into it, with a couple of soft matches. What’s more, you get a day off after each one.

Djokovic is certainly used to converting adversity into fuel. He has been doing so since his war-torn childhood in Belgrade. His autobiography features a cinematic sequence in which an F-117 jet-fighter flies over his head and fires missiles into a nearby hospital. Yet his very survival seems to have left him with a Messiah complex. This is shared by his father, Srdjan, who loves to use Christ-like imagery when speaking about his son.

During Monday’s press conference, Djokovic’s mother Dijana went so far as to claim that he had been tortured. For his extended family – which includes the passionate fans who could be seen storming through Melbourne’s streets – this whole episode has lit a kind of holy fire. The way things are going, his latest tilt at the Australian Open could be less of a campaign than a crusade.

Serbian superstar is a born warrior

For all the discomfort, Djokovic can draw a strange kind of strength from the past few days. He possesses a species of narcissism sometimes found in great athletes. As with Kevin Pietersen, everything always happens to him. “It’s not easy being me,” Pietersen once complained. Yet all the attention only served to burnish that planet-sized ego.

Djokovic is unlikely to worry that Tennis Australia’s actual events have disappeared from public view, outshone by the supernova of his personal narrative. This is his turn to be talked about. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal might be the darlings of the game, but can they ever claim to have triggered an international incident?

Assuming that Djokovic is allowed into Melbourne Park, he will undoubtedly face hostility from the crowd. This may grieve him – a man Nick Kyrgios has accused of having “a sick obsession with being liked” – but it is unlikely to derail him. When fans snub him in major finals, he admits that he simply takes their chants of “Roger, Roger” (for instance) and re-edits them in his own mental recording studio. What he hears instead is “Novak, Novak”.

Indeed, he might even abandon his usual nice-guy act – which includes a “cringeworthy” (according to Kyrgios) victory celebration in which he mimes throwing his heart at the stands – and simply revel in being the villain again. This is a role he will surely remember from his younger days as a scrappy interloper, determined to break up the great Federer-Nadal bromance.

No one who knows Djokovic will imagine that his spirit will have been broken by these few frustrating days. Rather, his batteries have probably been recharged. 

His brother Djordje said on Monday that Djokovic had already been out on the court practising, in the few short hours since a judge declared him free to walk the city streets. This news was soon confirmed by Djokovic’s own social-media post, an understated photograph showing him standing on Rod Laver Arena with his coaching team.

Whatever else you might say about him, the man is a born warrior. Even as the verdict was handed down, his fingers must have started twitching. He was already keen to grasp the handle of his trusty racket, and cut a swathe through the ranks of his foes. Friedrich Nietzsche’s maxim must have been lurking in his mind: “Whatever doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger.”

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