“Special is a good word” – Djokovic’s complex relationship with the Parisian crowd

The Serb’s unique, often tempestuous, dynamic with the Parisian crowd continued during his third-round win over Tallon Griekspoor

Novak Djokovic, Paris Masters, 2023 Djokovic asks the crowd for more at the 2023 Paris Masters Michael Baucher / Panoramic
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Novak Djokovic‘s relationship with the Parisian tennis crowd is one of the most interesting dynamics between player and spectator in the sport.

There are few – if any – other players who can simultaneously mesmerise and goad a crowd quite like the 24-time Grand Slam champion. Put this up against a famously passionate, spirited and vocal French audience, and the result is often very entertaining, if volatile.

Add to this the fact that tennis fans in Paris have shared a near-two decade long love affair with Djokovic’s great rival, Rafael Nadal, and the depth of complexity of the relationship begins to be understood.

Respect and hostility are often two sides of the same coin

“Special is a good word. Very, very special” was the world No 1’s response when asked to give his thoughts on the Paris crowd following his hard-fought win over Tallon Griekspoor at the Paris Masters on Thursday night.

The sardonic nature of his reply was impossible to miss. And yet, on some level, Djokovic truly means this as a compliment.

Likewise, when the Parisian crowd jeer the Serb, it rarely feels as though it comes from a place of genuine hostility. Rather, it is an important component of a long-running ritual for both Djokovic and the Paris crowd to give each other a hard time, before mutual respect comes to the fore when Novak produces something incredible on the court.

The fervent support for Carlos Alcaraz during their epic semi-final clash at Roland-Garros this summer only tells half of the story of this compelling love-hate relationship. The rapturous applause for Djokovic winning his men’s record 23rd Grand Slam title on French soil just two days later forms the other half.

Partisan Parisian crowd only spurs Djokovic on

During this third-round encounter with Griekspoor in Bercy, there were members of the crowd that overstepped the mark – with some shouting out between serves in an obvious attempt to distract the world No 1.

But Djokovic understands that a tempestuous exchange with the crowd is exactly what he needs when his back is up against the wall. Nothing fires him up quite as much as this.

“What do you think,” Djokovic responded when he was asked whether the booing crowd had given him a timely boost.

“When I asked them to boo more I won eight points in a row. So…”

With genuine frustration at crowd misdemeanours also comes an acknowledgement that a purely adoring audience will do the Serb few favours if he is in trouble – one only has to look at the 2021 US Open final to understand this.

That being said, there is a base level of respect that Djokovic expects and deserves. The balance between admiration and villainization is one that, on the whole, Paris usually gets right.

Djokovic irked, but ultimately helped, by Paris crowd disruptions

On Thursday night, however, that balance was lost to some degree. The Serb was understandably irked by this.

“It’s something that I’m used to but it’s OK (when people shout).

“I think it’s disrespectful for both players, but it is what it is. It was an exciting match, the public got into it. They wanted to decide the (outcome of the) match.”

After losing serve in the third set when crowd interruptions had clearly overstepped the mark, Djokovic sarcastically clapped towards the spectators, before asking them for more.

Djokovic was later asked whether he interacted with the crowd on purpose, in an effort to spur himself on.

“Tell me your opinion, you were there,” was his response, before adding, “I think I didn’t do anything to provoke the public but it is what it is. Nothing, absolutely nothing.”

While many members of the Parisian crowd were booing as Djokovic engaged with them, others were smiling. After all, they had come for entertainment, they had come to see Novak play. What comes with that is a certain element of spikiness that appeals.

A record six-time champion in Bercy, there is little doubt that Djokovic is greatly respected. When the crowd overstep the mark, it is most probably because they know he can handle it.

At the tail end of the post-match interview, Djokovic was asked why he thought the crowd in Paris were “very, very special.”

Djokovic smiled and simply repeated, “special is a good word.”

That, in a nutshell, says it all.

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