‘Booooo’ or ‘Ruuuuune’? The consensus seems to be the latter; that the fans on Arthur Ashe Stadium on Tuesday evening were supporting Holger Rune, rather than booing Novak Djokovic. Not that would have been anything new for Djokovic in New York.
The world No 1 weathered one of the most hostile and combative tennis environments seen this century when he beat Roger Federer in the 2015 US Open final, with every error by the Serbian vigorously cheered by the 23,000-strong crowd, and service motions regularly disrupted by shouting around the cavernous stadium.
The friction in Djokovic’s opener this year was nowhere near that level – but it was potentially a sign of things to come. And how Djokovic handles it could have a major impact on his chances of winning the Calendar Slam.
Nadal brushes aside Berrettini to reach final and close on 21st Grand Slam title
The tone for the next fortnight may have already been set as Djokovic did not deliver his customary heart-throwing celebration to the four sides of the stadium after beating Rune. It has been suggested that it was because his opponent was clearly hampered by injury, but perhaps it was also because he had not felt the support of the crowd.
“I didn’t know what they were chanting honestly. I thought they were booing. I don’t know, it was not ideal atmosphere for me…but I’ve been in these particular atmospheres before, so I knew how to handle it. It’s the largest stadium in sport. Definitely the loudest and the most entertaining stadium we have in our sport. Obviously you always wish to have crowd behind you, but it’s not always possible. That’s all I can say.”
Tennis legend Chris Evert tweeted before the US Open that fans should start to "celebrate Djokovic's greatness", but that is not a sentiment shared by everyone. Djokovic has a particularly complex relationship with the New York crowd. In 2008 he was booed during an on-court interview after beating home favourite Andy Roddick in a tense quarter-final, after which Roddick said the pair almost came to blows in the locker room. Djokovic also drew the ire of the Big Apple crowd when he retired with injury against Stan Wawrinka in 2019 – and gave them a sarcastic thumbs up as he was booed off Arthur Ashe. The boos would probably have rained down again if fans were in the stadium last year when he was disqualified for hitting the ball towards a line judge in frustration.
Djokovic may have won the US Open three times, but he hasn’t been able to win over the crowd as he said he hoped to after the one-sided support for Federer in the 2015 final. “Hopefully in the future I can be in that position,” said Djokovic diplomatically, having kept his cool on the court even when his service motions were being disrupted by yelling and hollering from the crowd.
“Everybody has a choice to support a player that they want to support,” he added. “I'm there to earn the support.”
Six years on and Djokovic still doesn’t have their support. And it’s hard to know if he ever will.
Every crowd loves an underdog, but they wouldn’t love them to actually beat Federer or Rafael Nadal. In New York they certainly didn’t love it when Serena Williams saw her Calendar Slam dreams crushed in the 2014 semi-finals by Flavia Pennetta. There's a balance between wanting entertainment, wanting bang for your buck, wanting to see more than a straight-sets win, and still wanting the right person to win the match. With Djokovic that balance is tilted differently. Perhaps because of his on-court persona, perhaps because of his off-court persona, but certainly because he has been the one who has usurped Federer and Nadal at the top of the game and surpassed most of their achievements on the court.
Will New Yorkers warm to him this year? Eurosport’s Mats Wilander thinks Djokovic's quest for the Calendar Slam could help him get some more support. “Over the years people have been cheering for Roger and Rafa for so long. I think he will get the crowd on his side when they start to realise they might see history here.”
One definite positive for Djokovic is that neither Federer or Nadal are at the US Open. Without them there doesn't seem to be too many others star names the crowd will ferociously back. Stefanos Tsitsipas didn’t earn many fans in the first round against Andy Murray while the off-court allegations against Alexander Zverev may limit support for him. Daniil Medvedev may get the most support after his sensational turn from heel into hero in 2019.
‘Something unbelievable’ – Will Djokovic win 21st Grand Slam?
But will Djokovic put it all aside and be able to focus on the job at hand? He has spoken in the past about the techniques he uses to cope with lopsided crowd support. “When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger,’ I hear ‘Novak,’” he said after beating Federer in the 2019 Wimbledon final. “It sounds silly, but it is like that. I try to convince myself that it’s like that.” There must be a frustration, though, that he does not get the same vocal backing as his rivals – and perhaps not celebrating with the crowd after his win over Rune was a sign of that. Or at least a sign of his sensitivity towards it.
While he plays it straight most of the time when talking to the media, Djokovic’s former coach Boris Becker revealed a few years ago that the world No 1 did get bothered by the lack of appreciation he received compared to Federer and Nadal. Nick Kyrgios – far from the biggest Djokovic fan in the world – also commented that he thinks Djokovic has “a sick obsession with wanting to be liked…like he wants to be like Roger.” Djokovic himself has admitted that “sometimes it gets to me” when he not only has to play “against the opponent, but against the stadium as well”.
It will be fascinating to track how the crowd respond to Djokovic as the US Open progresses. Will they get behind him as he bids to become the first man in 51 years to win the Calendar Slam? Or will they be rooting for his opponent? And if they do, how will that affect Djokovic and his chance to make history?
'Ludicrous' to say Djokovic isn't best player, even if Medvedev gets No. 1 - McEnroe
'It would be unbelievable' - McEnroe assesses prospect of Federer winning again