Novak Djokovic

Those we love, and those we love to hate

Every hero has his heel


This article is taken from the April 2022 issues of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Novak Djokovic (above) has won as many grand slam titles as Roger Federer (below) , but the two men are like chalk and cheese. Federer is loved, while Djokovic, for many tennis fans, is the player they love to hate. He argues with umpires and line judges, and smashes racquets in anger. He takes bathroom breaks to disrupt opponents. He was once disqualified from a tournament when, after losing a game, he hit a ball hard into the face of a female line judge.

Roger Federer

There is politics too. A Serb, Djokovic meets extremists and nationalists. Throughout the pandemic, he made clear his opposition to vaccines. After testing positive for the virus, he still attended public meetings.

When Australia deported Djokovic over his refusal to comply with Covid rules, half the world seemed to cheer, even though legally he might have been in the right. When Nick Kyrgios, an Australian tennis player, called Djokovic a “tool”, he was undoubtedly speaking for countless fans.

Djokovic is an extreme example, but he is not the only one. Whether it is John McEnroe swearing on court, cheating cricketers like David Warner, or Eric Cantona, who kung-fu-kicked a rival team’s supporter, there are plenty of players we love to hate. After that kick, Cantona was banned for nine months, stripped of the French captaincy and handed a two-week prison sentence, later reduced to community service, but he remains unrepentant even now. “I would have loved to kick him even harder,” he says.

Such arrogance may partly explain the hatred. The players forever convinced that they deserved to win, that they were wronged by fate, or by an umpire or referee, or those who do win, but fail to show magnanimity, can get under our skin.

But arrogance cannot be the only reason we hate some stars, for if we are honest, elite sport demands such arrogance from its players. And we love many of our heroes — think Ian Botham, Paul Gascoigne — precisely because of their swagger.

Sometimes, the hatred is about the team the star represents. Ask a football fan which players they love to hate, and a disproportionate number will play for clubs like Chelsea and Manchester United. Ask an England cricket fan which players they cannot stand, and more often than not, the names they will give are Australian. Would John Terry have been so annoying had he not played for Chelsea? Would Glenn McGrath have been easier to like had he not played for Australia?

It might have been easier to like McGrath had he not predicted that Australia would beat England 5-0 at the start of every Ashes series, and easier still had he never been proved right. It might have been easier to like Terry if he had not been at the centre of so many controversies.

Even the bastards we quietly love, we publicly love to hate

The truth is that many players who engage in what fans these days call “shithousery” are asking for trouble. England fans adore Stuart Broad, but his refusal to walk against Australia — when he quite obviously edged the ball straight to slip — means he will always be hated down under. Footballers like Bruno Fernandes and even Mo Salah — loved by their own fans — will always be unpopular with others because of their strange inability to maintain their balance in the penalty area.

Some stars who end up reviled and hated are, straightforwardly, cheats. Maradona might have been a unique talent, but his deliberate handball against England in the 1986 world cup — and subsequent insistence that it was “la mano de Dios” — meant, however brilliant he was, he would be loathed forever by the English.

Cameron Bancroft, Steve Smith and David Warner, the Australian cricketers who used sandpaper to tamper with the ball to make it reverse swing in South Africa, will never live down what they did.

And yet, and yet, some stars who we love to hate somehow end up much loved. Sometimes, this is because the hatred was never very real. We like to say we hate some truly special players, but what we really hate is that they are using their talents against the teams and stars we support.

The late, great Shane Warne took no end of stick from England cricket fans, but we always knew we were witnessing greatness. Once he retired, we could finally admit it. Some, however, really do go from zero to hero. Outside Manchester, Cantona was loathed, but now — thanks to his bizarre philosophical commentaries and quirky media appearances — he is a popular figure.

But to really understand why we love to hate some stars, perhaps we must consider the stars we simply love. Roger Federer, graceful, charming, with a classical playing style that overcomes his more powerful opponents. Lionel Messi, the little technician, the brilliant dribbler, passer and goalscorer. Brian Lara, the last of the West Indian jedi, who through personal brilliance carried a generation of ordinary players unfortunate enough to follow several generations of geniuses.

These stars are, perhaps, less arrogant than those we love to hate. But we also compare them to decidedly less romantic rivals. Federer and Nadal and Djokovic. Messi and Ronaldo. Lara and the rising Australian team that supplanted the West Indies as the best in the world. In other words, while it is true that nice guys do not always finish last, too often it is the bastards who finish first. And even the bastards we quietly love, we publicly love to hate.

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