November, 2014. Semi-final match at the ATP World Tour Finals. Novak Djokovic, reigning champion at the Tour’s London event, applauds the crowd — sarcastically, tauntingly, with bitterness? — after they applauded his double fault that cost him his service game against Kei Nishikori in the London semi-final.
The most probable explanation for the champion’s questionable reaction was that he felt the crowd had celebrated his error, which, in tennis terms, is not acceptable crowd behavior (yet increasingly common).
The incident brings to mind the movie Gladiator and the memorable scene in the Colosseum, where, having butchered his opponents, Roman General-cum-slave Maximus Decimus Meridius turns to the crowd and defiantly yells at them, Are you not entertained?
General Maximus knows what he’s doing. He knows that the crowd he’s entertaining, the crowd he has to win over to secure his freedom, will respond to an authoritative and powerful figure. His taunting them gives them exactly what they want: a person they can respect. Which gives him exactly what he wants: popular support.
The legend of the Spaniard is thus created, to the chants of which Maximus performs in Rome’s bloody arena.
Two thousand years on, in a different day and age, in the real world, Djokovic the Serb is fighting in one of today’s grand entertainment venues, the tennis arena, eager to break all kinds of records. The year is 2014, and the Serb rules the game. He has a 30-0 match record indoors — an undefeated and searing winning streak. He only dropped 9 games in his last three matches. He just defended his number one spot in the world and is looking to become the first person to win three successive ATP World Tour Finals since Ivan Lendl in 1987. He’s writing history, so he doesn’t understand why the crowd doesn’t root for him all the way. Why they applaud his double fault, his broken serve, any error that may cut his run short.
He forgets that people don’t celebrate excellence. They celebrate entertainment. They prefer a good, cracking show above all, with plenty of drama and suspense, even if that means their champion has to fall.
See, people love to make their champions fall. They love to kill their gods. They sacrifice them on the altar of human emotion so that they may lament their demise, miss them and revere them from then on. So that they may gage how they bounce back to reclaim the spotlight.
Resurrection: The driving force behind public acclamation. The prerequisite to adoration and reverence, which can only be achieved by a sacrifice overcome, by a rise after the fall.
The brutal truth is that humanity is a deicidal species. It kills its frontrunners again and again, making headway by making amends for the affront, driven on by a combination of fear and trembling, fear and loathing, awe and penance, guilt and wonder, desperation mixed with inspiration and foul misdeed, and the need for redemption, and the wish to transcend.
The brutal truth is that to be a revered performer, you must not only overcome your opponents. You must also learn to die by the hand of the crowd for which you are performing. Djokovic needs to remember the leaders before him and endure the test, relish his surroundings’ homicidal tendencies like a champion determined to survive them, using them to spur himself on. Do that and he will truly make history, like Ivan Lendl before him, the man whose record he is looking to match, and Rafa Nadal, whose number one spot he has claimed, and Roger Federer, whose shadow he is desperate to transcend — and whose love affair with the crowd he wants to steal — and the crowd will chant ‘Serb, Serb,’ spurring Djokovic on at the sight of him standing tall in a pool of blood that belongs not only to his adversaries but also himself.
The brutal truth is that to be a general, a god, a leader of any kind, you must fall, disintegrate, pull yourself together and rise again, ever higher, despite the odds and challenges.
Most people don’t.
Intrigued? Watch this space for more.
From the collection of writings EON: THE ANGRY COMING OF AGE