Heroes and Villains
On Novak Djokovic
“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
- The Dark Knight (2008)
Though golf may be the more fitting analog, there are so many parallels between standup comedy and tennis, not least of which is the sheer individualism. Sure, you can have a team behind you, but when it’s game time or show time, it’s just you up there. No matter how highly-ranked a player is, he still carries his own bag.
Standup comedy became my profession; tennis remains my hobby.
In 1992, my high school friend, Rob Wilson, recruited several of us to volunteer at the world-renowned ATP Tournament in Mason, Ohio. For the past two weeks of the US Open, whenever the commentators referred to “Cincinnati,” this is what they meant.
I started off working as a Ballboy, got promoted to Ballkid Supervisor, shifted into the Player Locker Room, went upstairs to the Media Room, and ended as the Uniform Chairman.
By 2003, I had to retire to attend to my demanding P&G job; eventually, all four Fairfield-based Satyals would volunteer at the ATP: my two brothers as ballboys, my Mom in the Player Lounge, and my Dad (and his Australian-based brother whilst in-town), who completed 26 years as a Marshall last month.
For that magical week every year, though I was 30 minutes from my small town of Fairfield, I strangely felt a long way from home, what with the country club vibe and all those products of private school. Nevertheless, I ultimately befriended Tournament Director Paul Flory. I was sitting in his office, Mr. Flory illuminated by the huge glass window behind him, when he called out, “So! How’d you like to work for Procter & Gamble?” I swear I turned around to see if there was an audience; it felt like a line straight out of a movie. I believe Mr. Flory had worked at P&G for 35 years; he connected me with Steve Korach, who ran the food tents and also happened to work in P&G Recruiting. Korach put me in-touch with Gerry Preece, whom I met for an interview at a University of Cincinnati bar called the Holy Grail, and the rest as they say, is history. I’d go on to work at P&G for six years; Preece remains one of my mentors to this day. I half-joke the coolest thing I did at P&G was fly on the corporate jet four times.
But the coolest things that had happened to me off of a comedy stage all happened at that ATP tournament: I’d met Andre Agassi on 3 April 1991, on a family trip to Disney World, at a Perkins Restaurant — and two years later, after he won his match in Cincinnati, I fell into step with him on Center Court and handed him the picture of the two of us, which he received with his characteristic huge smile and a vivacious, “Thanks!” I’d go on to take a few more pictures with him, feeling like I made a real connection. The craziest moment had to be in the summer of 1995, when Agassi was absolutely on fire… to the point that he and I were in two chairs next to each other, looking up at the TV when ESPN’s SportCenter showed a segment on him. It was positively surreal to glance over and try to comprehend the magnitude of sitting right next to a person being showcased on international television.
Those who’ve followed my comedy career know that the first person for whom I ever did standup was World-№1 Pete Sampras — in that same Player Locker Room. This gave me the confidence to kill at Go Bananas Comedy Club two weeks later (August 1998), when I tried it for the first time in front of non-World №1 tennis players. In 1998, when I’d moved into my media role, I was sitting up in the booth above Center Court, watching the Finals: Pete Sampras vs. Patrick Rafter. Crazily enough, my friend, Derek, and I had been playing backgammon with Rafter in the locker room the year before. This year, we asked him to play and he declined. I asked, “Patrick, are you too big to play with us now that you won the US Open last year?” He took a comedic beat before shrugging and replying, “Yeah,” and then left the room.
Anyway. Center Court. Rafter breaks Sampras’ serve. I remarked to my supervisor, Greg Sharko (who’s still with the ATP Tour to this day), “That’s crazy. Rafter just broke Sampras a second time. Sampras has been broken only twice the entire week.” Sharko exclaims, “Great nugget!” He calls ESPN, and 30 seconds later, that factoid is running on the crawl. This was the moment I realized I wanted to work in media/entertainment: it was all about proximity. At home, on the couch, I would’ve said the same thing to a friend and I would’ve gotten a detached “Hmm.” Here, in the booth, I could make the same observation and the entire world could access it. It was such a charge of electricity to feel that.
A thread I haven’t shared broadly was the quick acquaintanceship I developed with French Open Champion Thomas Muster. Andre Agassi remains my all-time favorite athlete (in a dead heat with Michael Jordan) but Muster was his nemesis. So, as a loyal Agassi fan, I disliked him before I met him. Turned out, of all the players, he was the nicest to me. Most of the tennis players in the locker room were understandably focused: the top-ranked ones didn’t really interact with anybody other than their team; nearly all of them, regardless of ranking, kept to themselves. Muster was different. He laughed, he chatted, he joked around with me. I felt like the biggest traitor to Andre, so after he lost and was ready to leave town, I blurted out, “Thomas, I gotta confess something. Till I met you, I hated you. What’s up with all your negative media coverage? You’re so nice!” Muster simply replied, “The media needs heroes and villains. I’m the villain.” Just like the Joker… the nickname for Novak Djokovic.
Muster’s response has stayed with me for decades. It was an important lesson to learn so early in life. And it has hovered over me during Djokovic’s incredible 2021 quest to win the Grand Slam: all four major tournaments (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and US Open) in one calendar year. You see, after I left the tournament in 2003, I haven’t followed sports nearly as much. Some of that was natural: has any of us cared about who wins more than when we were teenagers? If I had to rank the individuals/teams for whom I felt the most emotion during a championship, it would be these. I’ll list the years, the entity, some context, and the Win/Loss.
- 1990–2006: Andre Agassi. I began following him in the ’90s. W + L.
- 1991–1998: Chicago Bulls. The two three-peats and the Magic defeat. W.
- 1990: Cincinnati Reds. Wire-to-Wire. W.
- 1996: New York Yankees. I met Manager Joe Torre two weeks after the World Series in a B. Dalton bookstore in Tri-County Mall. W.
- 1992: Pittsburgh Pirates. This is a curveball, I realize; I loved Andy Van Slyke. L.
- 1992-’93: Michigan Basketball. Fab Five… the Chris Webber T.O. L.
- 1999–2000: University of Cincinnati Basketball. Kenyon Martin’s broken leg. L.
- 1988: Cincinnati Bengals. 34 Seconds Short. I was a bit too young to appreciate it. L.
- 1991–1993: Buffalo Bills. I didn’t care when they lost to the NY Giants, as I predicted the outcome in Week 2. What a mistake that was. L.
- 2016: Cleveland Cavaliers. LBJ, on my ol’ stompin’ grounds, got me back into basketball. W.
- 2020: LA Dodgers. They needed this after the Astros scandal. W.
- 2002: Ohio State Football. I desperately wanted the Midwest to shut the South up. W.
As you can see, I’ve absorbed a lot of agony. But I’ve enjoyed my fair share of joy, as well. And while I deeply appreciate the underdog, I’ve weirdly found some comfort in the sure shot. That there are some things in this world you can count on.
I hadn’t really been following tennis since Agassi retired in 2006. I know how crazy it sounds to admit that I missed the entire #Fedal era: the rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal dwarfs any before it, especially because Sampras bested Agassi in almost every Major Final. Sure, there was Borg/McEnroe and Connors/McEnroe, but the game today is played on a completely different level. And it’s been glorious to reconnect in this manner with my immediate family: the only thing anticipated more than the next shot was the next text from my Dad or the comment from my Mom, fortunately sitting right next to me the last fortnight here in LA.
Rod Laver won the Grand Slam in 1962 and 1969, but the former was before the Open Era began in 1968 (before they let both professionals and amateurs play together) and the latter consisted of only grass and clay courts. It wasn’t till Agassi won the French Open in 1999 (rallying from two sets down against another Medvedev) that a male had won all the Grand Slams on three different surfaces; as such, Djokovic would’ve achieved nobody else ever had.
Here’s the thing (and I’ve posted this before): clearly, this match mattered. I mean, Djokovic cried. A grown man wept in front of tens of thousands of people in the stands and millions of people around the world. But Djokovic had already won all four in a row: 2015 Wimbledon, 2015 US Open, 2016 Australian Open, and 2016 French Open. Though the OCD person in me appreciates the Calendar Year Grand Slam, there’s little doubt this is harder than winning them all in the same season. One could argue you get to rest over the offseason… but take a look at rain delays: they almost always favor the losing player. It’d stand to reason that it’d be tougher to maintain focus over the offseason. Djokovic has already held all four titles at once.
As a tennis fan, I wanted to see Novak do it. The circumstances were eclipse-like; it’s incredibly unusual to have the opportunity to pull off the hardest thing in your sport (winning the Grand Slam) AND surpass your rivals (breaking the three-way tie of 20 Slams he has with Federer and Nadal). It would’ve generated even more interest in the sport, given the news would’ve traveled further had the feat been accomplished. However, it’s tough to top two teen women of colour (hey, they’re from the Commonwealth) in the Women’s Final.
And for all the premiums I put on being a nice person, I do seem attracted to assholes: Jack Nicholson, Chevy Chase, Larry David. That said, I do believe that Djokovic, for all his faults, is a bit misunderstood. Just like they did to Muster, the media has made him out to be a monster; the hatred had gone too far and I wanted to be a counterbalance. He never spewed the kind of bile towards Simone Biles the way they claimed he did; read the transcript. Or as Jack would say, “Check the tower logs, for Chrissake!”
And with so much on the line, he played for his country during the Tokyo Olympics. Sure, you could say he was chasing the even-more-elusive Golden Slam (I’ve also found that very arbitrary), but he played mixed doubles, something far off the path toward his goal. So, something that selfless is evidence he can’t be THAT bad of a guy.
One commentator guilely opined that the players have learned to move on before the fans have. When Novak lost, it hit me much harder than I would’ve expected. Perhaps it was the backdrop of 9/11/21. I’d imagine most of us (the ones fortunate enough to not have lost someone special) have had a harder time with the 20-year anniversary than the 10th: back in 2011, there was a semblance of the unity we felt in 2001. Now, as we lose a “9/11 number of our fellow citizens” every three days due to covid, the hope of coming together seems nearly impossible. I heard this thought reflected on the Sunday morning news programs, but in my own mind, I tied it to the fact that, for the first time in its 140-year history, the US Open featured no American (of any gender) to make it past the quarterfinals. To quote Bunk to Omar: “It makes me sick, motherf*cker, how far we done fell.”
And if I feel that bad, I wonder how Novak feels. That all said, as I posted on Instagram right before his speech, “If Djokovic gives a gracious speech, he’ll win more fans than had he won the Grand Slam.” He did. And given his words, and more importantly, his tears, this could end up being the best thing for him: finally to gain the respect he’s so craved… to be loved in defeat instead of hated in victory.
To close it out (something he couldn’t do — too soon?) on some more bright notes, as a sports fan, maybe I’m not so gutted he lost. Had he won, the G.O.A.T. debate would be over. Now, it continues for another year. Ken Rosewall was 37 years and 2 months when he won the Aussie Open in 1972. Djokovic can play in the 2024 Wimbledon before he turns that old. Physical fitness has improved in sport, so he probably has 10 more cracks at this.
Will he do it? Probably, but it’ll get rougher. Djokovic remains the World №1, but the rankings sometimes lag reality. Medvedev might already be the best player in the world. He certainly played like it in the Finals. Amongst him, Zverev, Berrettini, Tsitsipas, et al., the task seems taller.
And then I remember the man has 20 Grand Slam titles and makes a living doing what he loves. And not only makes a living… he has earned fortune and fame beyond what many of us will ever see. We don’t have to feel THAT terrible for him. Haha. But of course, in this Age Sorely Lacking in Empathy, if we get caught up in the superficialities, we lose our sense of humanity. On Sunday, I watched a spirit, crushed by the weight of pressure and expectations. Andy Roddick famously tweeted, “First he takes your legs ……. then he takes your soul.” Djokovic had the perfect response to that, saying, “I don’t take anyone’s soul…. We are all beautiful souls so I appreciate anyone.”
Agassi, whose press conferences I watched as much as his matches, once addressed the fact that he’d roller-coastered up and down so much during his career. He answered it by saying, “I’d rather miss out on a little bit of tennis than a little bit of life.” Well, for a brief moment, Novak may have lost a step on the court, but he gained a step as a human being.
And to top it all, I remember how lucky we are. We didn’t witness a Grand Slam. We witnessed something even rarer: we saw the villain become the hero.
Rajiv Satyal is a professional standup comedian and an amateur tennis player. He resides in Los Angeles.