Novak Djokovic’s Wimbledon triumph came at the expense of Roger Federer. But the nature of the victory was inspired by Federer. In a similar way, England’s victory over Australia in the first Ashes Test owed a substantial debt to New Zealand, their previous opponents, whose example helped Alastair Cook’s men to find their voice as a team.
Djokovic’s development from bad boy to ambassador shows how civilising forces work: he was elevated by the expectations of those around him. Market forces played a positive hand, too.
Bizarrely, Djokovic has found himself attacked for being bland. In her book Love Game, the cultural critic Elizabeth Wilson used a Marxist intellectual framework to dismiss him as “the perfect player of corporate tennis: a tennis without controversy, predictable, repeatable, quantitative, metronome tennis”.
This is perfectly back-to-front. Corporate tennis has indeed influenced Djokovic but overwhelmingly for the good. As a player, the young Djokovic often allowed his volcanic temperament to get the better of him. He was considered physically and psychologically flaky and never won over fans’ hearts in the way that his rivals did. Now Djokovic is tennis’s iron man and one of the most likeable athletes in the world. Those two developments are not unconnected.
It has been moving to watch him apply his fearsome strength of character towards ironing out every last chink in his game. His second serve, once his greatest weakness, provided a crucial advantage against Federer. That is typical of Djokovic. Any old fool can beat his chest and shout at the crowd. Smoothing away the minute flaws – physical, mental, technical – is frighteningly difficult.
Djokovic initially found himself slightly frozen out at the top. It was no secret that Federer, in particular, disapproved of his occasionally disrespectful antics. The two are said not to be friends, even now. Federer, however, would be the first to point out that Djokovic’s on-court behaviour has become close to immaculate. Just as the Swiss master raised the bar in the evolution of tennis, he did the same for its sportsmanship. As a result, the culture of modern tennis pushed Djokovic to new levels, on and off the court. The Serb discovered, perhaps to his surprise, that he had many unused gears.
It is possible to imagine Djokovic settling, in a less demanding era, for an easier persona – smashing rackets, swearing at the umpire, blaming the world, the self-indulgent anti-hero, the unreliable chancer. Instead, he was driven by the example of his peers to beat them at their own game – a total victory powered by a mixture of competitiveness and self-control.
What has this to do with market forces? There is understandable curiosity at the top of men’s tennis about why Federer has remained the most marketable and widely loved athlete. Federer is usually the crowd’s favourite, wherever he plays. At times, his opponents must feel that they are playing against the game itself. Unsurprisingly, his status has been richly rewarding, in every sense of the term.
Much of that appeal, especially Federer’s balletic ferocity, is impossible to emulate. Yet some of his trademarks – courtesy with the media, respect towards opponents, graciousness in victory – can be copied. Djokovic’s total performance in the Wimbledon final, in terms of both his game and his behaviour, showed how far he has travelled.
And this may well land him more sponsorship deals. Should we not be thankful to the sponsors? It is easy to complain about the ways in which money compromises sport. (I often do.) So, it is important to identify how the market can also improve behaviour. Djokovic has learned a lot from the man he beat on 12 July – and not just about tennis.
This is relevant to cricket, and especially to the current Ashes series. It is a common assumption (especially in the media) that when players resort to personal abuse and boorishness, it enhances the appeal and commercial value of the product. A whole lexicon of excuses and euphemisms – “spice”, “banter”, “intensity” and, worst of all, “That’s how much they care” – props up the theory.
I’m not so sure, however. Bad blood between teams may provide a short-term boost but it also brings with it a longer-term popular disengagement. Thankfully, the opposite is happening within English cricket at the moment. The team is not just winning matches, it is inspiring admiration and affection. That was missing from England’s Ashes success in the 2013 home series. There was something dour about the whole experience. England won but never shook off the shackles.
This summer, it feels different. The sparkling first Test at Cardiff was played in a fine spirit. Credit is due to both teams but also to the international side that set the tone for this summer’s engaging cricket: New Zealand. It was surely Brendon McCullum’s men whose example and attacking style prompted England into a positive mindset, in demeanour and deeds.
In game theory, “the prisoner’s dilemma” shows how a narrowly self-interested strategy may benefit one party over a rival but to the detriment of the whole. A co-operative strategy, in contrast, would benefit both sides more than a negative strategy would. So it is in sport. Athletes, by definition, are in explicit opposition. But they are simultaneously accomplices, part of a wider culture that supports their careers and reputations. Just ask Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.