By Richard Pagliaro | @Tennis_Now | Wednesday, January 17, 2024
Grand Slam gladiator Novak Djokovic called out a heckler tonight then silenced the fan with a fierce finish.
Annoyed by a fan berating him behind the baseline, Djokovic finally had enough.
In the early stages of the fourth set, he turned, walked to the black back wall, stared down the disruptor and challenged the fan “come say it to my face.”
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That intense exchange was the fire that fueled defending champion Djokovic to a 6-3, 4-6, 7-6(5), 6-3 triumph over Aussie Alexei Popyrin to battle into the Australian Open third round for the 16th time.
“Look, I don’t want to be in those types of situations,” Djokovic said afterward. “I was flat I guess emotionally. Game-wise I was quite flat for some part of the match, end of second set, most of the third set.
“Maybe that was needed for me to be shaken up a bit and start to find the kind of intensity on the court that I needed to have all match.”
Asked afterward what the fan was yelling at him, Djokovic replied “you don’t want to know” before sharing what happened when he reached his boiling point.
“I was tolerating it for most of the match. At one point I had enough, and I asked him whether he wants to come down and tell it to my face,” Djokovic said. “When you confront somebody, unfortunately for him, he didn’t have the courage to come down.
“That’s what I was asking him. If you have courage, if you’re such a tough man, tough guy, come down and tell it to my face, and let’s have a discussion about it. He was apologizing from far away. That’s all it is.”
“Don’t poke the bear” 👀
Novak Djokovic responds to a member of the crowd looking to get under his skin 🍿 pic.twitter.com/1S9wQxwemg
— Eurosport (@eurosport) January 17, 2024
The 10-time AO champion said he has no issue with fans expressing themselves, but said when apparently inebriated fans cross the verbal line he will not tolerate it.
“I’m not going to sit and say it’s all good. It’s not good,” Djokovic said. “Of course, it upsets me. I’m frustrated. I don’t want to be experiencing that, but I have to accept it as it is.
“Sometimes I don’t tolerate when somebody crosses the line. That’s it. That’s what happened. People have a few drinks… I guess late at night as well, that probably also has an effect on how they feel and behave. That’s okay. People pay tickets to come and watch us. They want to see the show.”
It’s the second straight year heckling from AO fans fired up Djokovic to second-round victory.
A group of fans dressed as the famed Where’s Waldo character (called Where’s Wally Down Under) in matching red-and-white striped shirts and matching beanies were busy giving Djokovic the business during his 2023 Australian Open second-round win over Enzo Couacaud.
In the 2023 incident, Djokovic was coping with a cranky left hamstring injury, a tricky French qualifier on the opposite side of the net and a few unruly fans who sometimes screamed before or during his serve motion. Fellow fans tried to discourage the disruptors before Djokovic took matters into his own hands.
“The guy’s 𝐝𝐫𝐮𝐧𝐤 𝐨𝐮𝐭 𝐨𝐟 𝐡𝐢𝐬 𝐦𝐢𝐧𝐝… he’s not here to watch tennis!”
— Eurosport (@eurosport) January 19, 2023
Tonight, Djokovic delivered a resounding message to rowdy fans. If you get vulgar, you will get called out.
“If somebody crosses the line, I’m going to take it to him, as I did to this guy, ask him if he wants to come closer and tell me what he wants to tell me. Offend me, insult me as he did,” Djokovic said. “That’s all it is. He was not really keen on coming down. That’s what it was.”
The Grand Slam king is the Open Era’s greatest champion defeating raucous and adverse fans.
Why is Djokovic so good when some fans turn bad against him?
We put that question to combustible Hall of Famer John McEnroe, who calls Djokovic the greatest of all time against adverse audiences.
“That’s a great question. He’s the greatest that I’ve ever seen, by far, when the crowd is against him.” McEnroe said. “I had some times where that took place certainly, many times. It felt like never to the extent of Novak. I didn’t handle it nearly as well.
“For a while, you get inspired. Eventually it wears a little thin and old. You’re like, How come I can’t get some love in a way? When I got some love, that was when my game went down. I wasn’t good enough to win, unfortunately.
“Novak has been able to find that perfect sort of sweet spot where he’s able to use that as fuel, and in his 30s gotten better. I wish I knew. I wish I had known when I played. I wish I know even in a way now because I would try to impart that to anyone that would listen.
“That is the greatest quality he’s got without a doubt. Connors was great at it also. He’s probably the best I played….Novak is the best by far of having the crowd against him and turning it around.”
Photo credit: Daniel Pockett/Getty