Everyone loves Novak: how Djokovic became a star in the Olympic village

After Novak Djokovic took his first small step towards a gold medal on Saturday, his defeated first-round opponent, el mundo no 140 Hugo Dellien of Bolivia, could not stop himself from speaking his heart as they embraced at the net: “It’s a dream for me,” he said to Djokovic. “I want to remember my whole life that I played with you.” Dellien asked Djokovic for his T-shirt and they later posed for a photo.

Only occasionally on the regular tour does Djokovic come up against an opponent starstruck enough to ask for photos or a souvenir of their encounter after being blitzed off the court. But in Tokyo, where everyone seems to want a piece of the best player in the world, Dellien simply blends in with the crowd. Since Djokovic’s arrival here, it is unlikely there has been a more popular athlete in the Olympic village.

The line waiting to take a picture or make a memory with him never seems to end. He was captured on camera deep in conversation with Turkey’s men’s and women’s volleyball teams, explaining how mental approach allowed him to maintain longevity. Giovanna Scoccimarro, a German judoka, nabbed a selfie with and then ran away jumping for joy. Nina Derwael, the world champion gymnast, went viral after she posted a picture of them both in splits. A Lebanese physio managed to cajole Djokovic into sending a message to his country at a time of protests and unrest: “I want you to know that you are not alone,” said Djokovic in the video.

“I did speak with quite a few athletes, the first night was with Serbian female basketball players, judo athletes and from different sports,” said Djokovic after his second-round win over Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany.

“They were very interested to ask me about the mental strength and how to deal with pressure, what are the techniques and what are the ways to really understand how to bounce back if you lost your focus in that moment while you’re performing. I talked about that a lot but, I’m going to keep it a secret, just for athletes, athletes only.”

It is an interesting counterpoint to the many discussions about Djokovic’s popularity, which is frequently contrasted to the reverence reserved for Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal even as he stands level with them in grand slam titles. Just a few weeks ago at Wimbledon, as is often the case, the crowds respectfully cheered for the underdog in most of his matches. But this week has underlined how respected Djokovic is among his peers.

The Olympics is also always a reminder of the size of the sport. Tennis can often seem relatively small for most of the year and talk on how to grow the game dominates. But for two weeks every four years (usually), tennis’s scale and reach is demonstrated by how other athletes treat its players.

“You’re trying to get the hype and the attention towards our sport as much as you possibly can, so we’re all contributing to that in the Olympic village,” said Djokovic. There’s a lot of attention towards the tennis players from the other athletes, which is very nice to see, very nice to experience.”

Djokovic said he is staying in a hotel during his time here, but only to sleep. He is otherwise spending as much time as he can in the village and among his fellow athletes. “I’m in a hotel for tennis seasons and this happens once in four years. I try to balance things out with keeping my own routines and things that make me feel good, but I’m thriving on that wonderful energy in the village.”

On the court, Djokovic also continues to thrive. He took the second step in his gold medal attempt, beating the dangerous Struff 6-4, 6-3 to reach the third round. He will next face the 16th seed Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, an unpredictable but ambitious young Spaniard still looking for a big breakthrough. No matter how it ends, there should be no autograph requests afterwards.

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