Photo: Adriatik Illustration
On an August midday in 2007, I found myself browsing through the television channels trying to find something to watch while I finished my lunch. I have always been a sports fan but never a tennis fan. I found the game too slow and too many commercial breaks were squeezed in. But on that day, it was the only thing on and so I decided to give it a go. Little did I know that I was about to stumble upon a tennis player who would go on to change not just the course of tennis history but also who I would grow up to be one day too.
It was the replay of the US Open Final. I already knew that Roger Federer had won but the match still intrigued me. His opposition on that day was a young Serbian boy. Tall, dark haired, well-built and very good looking.
The game was over in straight sets, but the match was very close. Two of the sets went to tiebreakers and the commentators kept mentioning how this was the Serb’s first grand slam final. First grand slam final and yet he took the best tennis player at the time to the edge and went toe to toe with him. I found it really difficult to grasp his name properly and so the next day, the first thing I did at school was ask one of my classmates, the only one who watched tennis how to pronounce his name.
I scribbled this down on my palm with a permanent marker, almost as if as an ode to how this man would etch his name into my life permanently. And so, began the darling story of a fan and a tennis player.
I don’t remember much of the early years and to be frank, I was not as deeply rooted as I would later become in my teenage years. I was following it but not every match and most of the matches were not as widely broadcasted in Bangladesh as they are now.
However, all of that changed in 2010. By this time, I was what you would call a “super fan”. I had collected every newspaper pictures or articles, saved every YouTube videos I could find, stored every picture of Novak and tuned into every match I had access to. He won almost everything that year but for me seeing him win his first Wimbledon title meant the world. It was also around this time when I opened a Twitter account that would tweet news about him and a way to just connect with his other fans. Back then the community was just a few hundred of us. It startles me that there’s millions of us now.
I stayed up all night when he picked up his third grand slam that year, the US Open. I think that match went on till 6am Bangladesh time on a school night and while my parents did not approve of this, they understood what Novak Djokovic meant to me and that every child needs an idol to look up to.
Idol. That is a heavy crown for anyone to wear, no matter what they have achieved. But if there is one way to describe Novak for me, that would be the most appropriate word. To me it was not the fact that he became the world number one or that he was winning on a regular basis. If that was the case, then I would have sided with Roger Federer on that August day in 2007. But it was the sheer determination of Novak that made me admire him. The ruthlessness and the dedication that he gave to this sport, the never die attitude and the robust desire to improve every day.
I fondly remember the Australian Open 2012. That was an unforgettable tournament. We were off to a school camp trip and I had no access to the matches but throughout the tournament my sports teacher kept me updated. He even sent one of his female assistants to our dorm at 2am to tell me that Novak had beaten Andy Murray! And that is also a thing I have realised. I have always been so vocal about my admiration for Novak that each and every one of my friends, teachers or acquaintances cheered me on when Novak won. As if somehow, we were one and his victories were my victories too.
By the time he played the unforgettable 6 hours final against Rafael Nadal, I was back home and again I stayed up till late hours of the night to witness greatness. Two athletes at their peak destroying ever rational explanation of the human body and mental strength. Each shot was crazier than the one before, each rally was as breath-taking as the previous one. That was also the match when I truly grasped how much Novak’s mentality had improved and how much more confident, he was in himself.
Later when Novak’s birthday came around in May, I edited a video with other Djokovic fans and asked everyone who participated to tweet it to him. Then in the middle of the night I got a notification. “Novak Djokovic has started following you.” – WHAT?! Not only did he thank us, but his team also uploaded that video on his official website. The cherry on the top of all of this was Novak began to use the hashtag #NoleFam in his tweets.
Back in 2010 when I had another twitter handle, I realised that the Djokovic fans had no ‘name’. Calling ourselves ‘Djokovic fans’ was great but every fanbases need a nickname too. Thus, I began to use the hashtag NoleFam in my tweets. Nole, his nickname, Fam is the shorter version of family. A bit cliché but I love it. Soon this video blew up and the name stuck around. NoleFam, that is now our official fanbase name.
In 2012, a woman from Dubai Duty Free Tennis reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to be in a Google hangout call with Novak. I was so nervous that day and you could see it in my face. I was finally going to speak to this guy I had idolised for five years at that point. When my turn came to ask him questions, I stumbled and mispronounced his girlfriend, now wife, Jelena’s name and I felt like I wanted to hide under a pillow for the rest of my life. But Novak is a classy guy, I think he understood how mortified I was, and he later tweeted a sweet message to me. It might seem like a very small gesture to an ordinary being but to me it meant the world.
That is also the thing about Novak that I admire so much. These nods of appreciation might seem futile to some but to a young girl who looked up to him, it meant everything and that is who Novak Djokovic is. He goes a long way for people, but he won’t make noise about it. He hosted a small competition to give away the racquet he used in Roland Garros and I won that competition. He immediately messaged me and while I will keep the contents of those messages to myself, it was how he knew everything about me that baffled me. He was aware that I was going through some personal complications at the time and he acknowledged that, reached out to me and reassured me. How do you explain to a lay person that the world number one tennis player has time to be aware of some girl in Bangladesh? You can’t because you simply don’t see that elsewhere. But this was no ordinary fan-player relationship, it has always been much more than that.
Since 2010, I watched almost every single matches Novak played. Whether it was the painful losses at Roland Garros, the US Open or the complete domination at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. Winning the Roland Garros and completing the monumental achievement of holding all four grand slams at the same time was peak but I have realised that it’s the losses at the French Open that I keep going back to. Yes, he lost a few incredibly close matches, but it was the way he conducted himself afterwards that spoke volumes. When he teared up in 2014 and 2015 it got rid of all the notions that he was a machine on a mission. It reminded the world that he is indeed a human and just like any other being, despite being the champion that he is, the spearhead of mental fortitude, he too has emotions and days that don’t fully go according to the plan.
I made a bucket list around this time. The first one is a personal milestone that I hope to achieve one day and then the rest of the top 5 are all related to Novak.
“Meet Novak Djokovic”. That was my number 2.
This is Part 1 of of my love letter to Novak. Stay tuned for Part 2 which will be published next week.