Where praise is due

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The crowds always warm to the underdog, it seems.

Novak Djokovic, losing the US Open final on Sunday, has won over many of those who’ve mocked his countless victories. At least that’s what Jonathan Liew from The Guardian believes.

I’m not sure it matters if Jonathan Liew is right or wrong (these days, truth is a thankless commodity to peddle, in any case) but it’s easy to lean into Liew’s sense of how this epiphany moment for Djokovic is worth highlighting.

One game away from a heavy defeat and then, and only then maybe, did the throng of spectators whoop with gusto at the prospect of a Novak Djokovic fight-back. In the presence of this wave of emotional support, Djokovic broke down in tears. His defeat a matter of points away, he found himself emotionally unraveled.

If Liew’s hunch is correct, then this could have been the most glorious of defeats, outshining past triumphs, insomuch as it allowed the Serbian protagonist to connect with his audience in a way that had been out of this reach up until then, for the 17+ years he’d played professional tennis.

Whilst there have obviously been a cadre of die-hard fans, following Djokovic’s every perfectly weighted backhand, their collective heart skipping a beat with each t-shirt ripping tournament climax, it would seem (from a brief survey) that an uncomfortable majority of us have felt quite the opposite about his sheer awesome ability.

Rather than challenge the datasets here, I’d wager it might be possible to broadly agree that it can go against our better judgement to consistently praise the same person. Particularly when that person sits up high, undefeated, resplendent in their continued pursuit of winning.

After several years of such carrying on, watching Djokovic, I think it was just instinctive for me to want him to lose.

This isn’t typically the same with team sports. Or during times when we dedicate, say, a fortnight of our life to proudly cheer on anything vaguely “national” – from Eurovision to the Olympics, we don’t pay too much attention to egos, instead we keep churning out only positive sentiments, for our respective flag-bearers and brave gladiators.

With teams, I think even the less hardened patriots are also more forgiving in defeat. If Brazil wins the World Cup – again – whilst there’ll always be supporters of both sides, I feel we’d generally harp on less about them being so infuriatingly unbeatable than many of us have done over the years about Djokovic.

With Djokovic, there seems to have been something else at play all along, when it came to truly appreciating his talent for the game.

I think, sadly, I bought into the idea that he was this smug, robotic, charmless man. Knowing, all along, that this was most likely entirely bullshit.

I’m drawn to plenty of other people, held up in the celebrity spotlight, who ooze passion and determination about their chosen profession or past-time. Without ever questioning why. And, I’ve no doubt, many of them likely possess unappetizing traits, and sizeable egos.

Djokovic maintained identical characteristics to these same people, and yet I never threw down my support for him.

Why, I wonder? An inert desire to see someone, who thinks he’s unbeatable, get beaten? Was I suckered into the media propaganda, carping on about his posturing and his arrogance?

I don’t suppose it matters what has gone in the past. One can’t ‘un-feel’ an emotion, or take back a sentiment that might have been ill-advisedly shared.

Djokovic’s end of game breakdown on Sunday, followed soon after by his admission of being the “happiest man alive” – basking not in another victory, but in the face of this new, unbridled public warmth – is a marvel to watch, and from which to learn.

What shapes our attitudes and perspectives of others is a fundamental, if not the most fundamental, piece of emotional hardware that we have both the luxury and the curse of owning. We’ll never always get it right, that’s for sure. But we should be aiming to condition ourselves towards constant improvements.

Bestowing upon others the praise they deserve, is a reasonable starting point.

Giving them that, however gritted the teeth are through which you do so, would be a welcome change from a status quo where pulling people down seems all too often to be the main show in town.

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