This sporting decade seems to be one of fallen heroes, of demigods whose ugly deeds have put them beyond redemption.
First, it was sleaze as Tiger Woods shocked his wife and admirers. Then came avarice as Lance Armstrong’s lies were eventually exposed. On Valentine’s Day, last month, a day devoted to love, another of sport’s inspirational heroes – Oscar Pistorius – came crashing down from his pedestal, the police in South Africa allege. And then we have this ongoing saga of match fixing in football.
Thankfully, there is tennis … and there is Roger Federer to give hope. And Novak Djokovic for those who still believe.
The two, along with Rafael Nadal, of course, have taken tennis to a different level, to corners where the sport mattered little a decade ago. Djokovic will be playing the final on Sunday at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships after the Serb defeated Juan Martin del Potro 6-3, 7-6(4).
When not playing tennis, Federer could be in Johannesburg, working with underprivileged children. Or he could be speaking out in support of squash’s inclusion among Olympic sports.
Djokovic is not playing the statesman, as yet, but he certainly is the people’s champion - the “Djoker” as he mimics fellow pros on the court, a saviour of turtles, or a hot-stepper as he dances Gangnam Style. You also could find him in the stands at a Champions League game pitting AC Milan and Barcelona.
“It’s essential that professional athletes, especially the most successful ones, keep interacting with the fans, because they’re the ones who are giving you support, sometimes unconditional love and support,” Djokovic said.
“It’s incredible. In my case, I have been looking at the videos and all the messages and support that I have been getting the last few years. Some people are just … it’s breathtaking what they are making for me, how much dedication and passion they have for what I do.
“I try to give something in return, obviously, through my performance on the court and off the court, as well. You try your best because they are the ones who carry you on, who give you wins.”
There are no half measures for him and he treats every tournament equally. “You can’t really go out there and just try to play nice for the crowd and let the opponent win because you want to save yourself for next week,” he said. “People come to watch you, watch you play. They pay for tickets.”
The fans certainly appreciate that effort; the attendance for his games over the past week, or years, is a testimony. If Djokovic or Federer are on the court, it might be difficult to spot a vacant seat at the Dubai Tennis Stadium. By contrast, the women’s final between Petra Kvitova and Sara Errani last week had plenty of them.
“Sport is one of the, I guess, the purest ways of living,” Djokovic added. “I think it teaches you a great deal of commitment, dedication, great socialisation, love, passion. And the hard work really pays off in the end.
“You can’t really cheat in sport. You need to be committed all your life in the sport like tennis, which is a very demanding sport. It’s individual sport. It’s all on you. You lose or you win.
“I feel that it’s probably one of the best eras in the history of the sport that is gaining more fans around the world because it’s a beautiful game to watch.”
With the Fab Four – Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Andy Murray – leading the pack, and the likes of Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro in chase, it certainly is a promising era for the game.
Again, yesterday’s semi-final line-up was a testimony to that. For the first time in the tournament’s 21-year history, all four top seeds had made it to the semis, and the fans had turned up in numbers to watch the show. The former football stars Roberto Carlos, Michel Salgado and the former Chelsea and Real Madrid coach Guus Hiddink were among them.
Djokovic, a three-time champion and 11-0 for the year, and Del Potro were the first to entertain them. And the cheers never really died down as the world No 1 battled into the final with a 6-3, 7-6 victory, including 7-4 in the tie-breaker.
“I was very pleased with the performance overall and the way I handled myself in the tough moments,” Djokovic said after the game. “Mentally, I stayed tough and believed that I could go all the way and win in straight sets. I didn’t really allow myself to be negative.
“I have been very, very positive and confident, so I think that resulted with, overall, a really good performance.”
And, of course, he hoped the “fans had enjoyed it”.
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