The crying of Novak Djokovic almost got even more attention after the final of the US Open than the winning by Daniil Medvedev, his opponent. But was it really so special, that crying?
Not in a general sense. Even though scientific research has never been done on this, I dare to say that there is much more crying in top sport than, say, fifty years ago. And not just by the losers, but also by the winners. Ever seen pictures of a crying Fanny Blankers-Koen or Emil Zátopek after their Olympic triumphs?
Nowadays there is a lot of crying at the Olympics. The British newspaper The Times already dubbed the 2012 London Games as “The Crying Games”. Sixteen percent of all winners then cried on the podium, especially the British winners.
Then why were you surprised by a tear at Djokovic? After all, he also has exemplary predecessors in this regard. Immediately after his elimination from the 2006 US Open, Andre Agassi burst into tears. When Theo Maassen was confronted with this fragment in a talk show in 2007, he scorned: “We have a very nice word for that in Eindhoven… Homosexuality!” (A joke he would be resented now more than then.)
The most famous cry in tennis history is credited to Roger Federer. He collapsed completely in 2009 after losing the decisive fifth set of the Australian Open final against Rafael Nadal. „God, it’s killing me”, he sighed before sobbing uncontrollably on the track for minutes.
Djokovic has also shed hot tears on the track before. That was after losing to Argentina’s Juan Martín del Potro in the first round of the 2016 Rio Olympics. Yet there was more going on with him in New York on Sunday. He did something I’ve never seen a top tennis player do: burst into tears during the game. Towards the end he was sitting in his chair, sobbing into his towel. At the start of the next, last game, tears were still in his eyes.
I suspect he was especially moved by the public support, which used to be against him in New York; Federer and Nadal were simply much more popular. But suddenly he, the great Djokovic, had become the underdog himself and the public rallied behind him en masse. In his speech afterwards, he also pointed out how much that had touched him.
Showing emotions openly is not limited to sports. Emotion is popular, because emotion generates emotion. Especially on TV you see how program makers work towards emotion with specific questions and close-ups; tears are good for the ratings.
That need not make emotion suspicious in advance, but some reserve is necessary to prevent us from being constantly manipulated into emotion. The result could be that we no longer believe a tear and call it ‘homosexual’ in Eindhoven. The Djokovics, Agassi’s and Federers of top sport did not deserve that. I believe in their tears. The top sport of today cannot be compared with that of the past. Yes, they are paid in gold, but who could bear the stress and endless training labor they deal with every day?
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of September 15, 2021