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Novak Djokovic, the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Nature of Rooting for the Underdog

Rooting for the underdog is hard, and Novak Djokovic taught me what success at the end of the tunnel feels like.

Tennis: Wimbledon Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

My story is likely similar to your story, and you’ve probably heard it from all your fellow Clipper fans. We grew up amongst Laker fans, often within our families. They were not our preference and we grew an affinity to the Clippers. Whether it be through the players, going to games, the community, or a combination, we are still greatly outnumbered but completely proud. I have been away from Southern California for a good majority of the last decade or so, but I still wear the Clippers so proudly on my chest, even if my Blake Griffin and Chris Paul jerseys aren’t popular items in my dresser.

Something I realized very early on is that I have a proclivity to rooting for the underdog. I have very light allegiances in other sports, particularly in Southern California sports. But the teams include the Angels, the Anaheim Ducks, and a little fondness for Eli Manning’s New York Giants (as a little brother myself I have always found myself drawn to Eli). I had some minor joy when the Angels won a World Series and when the Giants beat the Patriotsx2, but really, I’ve lived my life terribly afraid that my team would lose. It’s directly involved with cheering for the Clippers for so long, seeing their lottery teams, watching that agonizing series against the Phoenix Suns, and it has been strengthened, unfortunately, by the Lob City era. The Clippers are far and away my biggest loyalty in sports, and cheering for them often felt like a sadistic practice. It’s taught me so much about what actually makes a franchise successful, but this tendency to root for the underdog made the feeling of eventual defeat inevitable, and it’s been hard to ever realistically think of the purest successes.

Then came Novak Djokovic.

My story following Djokovic is not terribly different than my other sports allegiances. I did grow up in a family that followed Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi (I, of course, preferred the latter) and then tennis not only died down significantly in my family, but across America. Andy Roddick was briefly #1 and won a Grand Slam himself, of which there are four throughout the year (Australian, French, Wimbledon, US), but he quickly became a casualty of an overwhelmingly dominant Roger Federer. Americans in general stopped being the powerhouses they had been in previous generations. Rafael Nadal came along to challenge Federer and would seem like an obvious person to follow, but of a similar age was a dude named Novak Djokovic, who grew up in war-torn Serbia, a guy who truly worked for everything he achieved. Around when I started following him, he was known for retiring from contests, occasional temper tantrums, and pretty funny impersonations. But watching him on the court, something drew me to him very quickly. He won the Australian in 2008 (Zach Lowe once compared the Lob City Clippers to Andy Murray, but CN at the time agreed that Jo Wilfred Tsonga might be a better comparison. Djokovic beat him to win his first major.) and he was clearly extremely gifted with some of the best returning in the world, but he was firmly #3 and often lost his cool late in major tournaments. My early social media is littered with mostly complaints about Djokovic and occasional boasts when he would beat Federer or Nadal. Felt like that was sort of the allegiance I chose when choosing to root for Djokovic.

Then something incredible happened in 2011. To start the year, Djokovic only had one Grand Slam. (Federer had 16, Nadal had 9) Djokovic was fresh off a strong showing getting to the US Open Final in 2010, beating Federer in 5 sets along the way. To start the new year Djokovic won the Australian, a tournament he had previously won. He made it to the semis of the French, losing a tough match to clay king Nadal. He then won the next 3 majors, in one of the most historic calendar runs in tennis history. He claimed the number one ranking along the way. He finished the year 70-6, tailing off a bit to end the year, and 10-1 against Federer/Nadal. Watching the success he was having was dizzying.

His play did not particularly trail off and he continued to win the Australian over the next few years, but he had his share of Slam Finals losses. After so much success, I was naturally content with a Slam here or there, and I thought if he could get 10 total for his career, I’d be happy.

Djokovic then had another incredible run in 2015-2016. After losing a disappointing semifinal to then unheard of Kei Nishikori to close 2014, Djokovic won 5/6 Slams, including a stretch where he held all 4 slams at once. I went to the US Open Final in 2015 when he beat Roger Federer, and it was one of the most exhilarating sports moments of my life. I thought rooting for the Clippers on the Lakers homecourt was rough, there was probably 95% Federer fans and near the end of the match, there were times when I felt some of his fans were going to act out physically on me. He won and I was arrogant as hell. This was slam #10.

He also won the elusive French Open title in 2016 completing his career Grand Slam, otherwise known as winning all 4 major slam titles, something very few have done in tennis history. The media started hyping him as possibly the future GOAT, and I started buying into it slightly. My underdog mentality still kept my reality in check, after all he was still far behind Federer’s slam totals and Federer was still playing so well. Djokovic then lost Wimbledon in the third round, had a chronic elbow injury that eventually required surgery, and had rumors of personal stressors weighing him down mentally. After a fluky finals run in the US Open in 2016, Djokovic fell off the scene, failing to even make a Grand Slam Semifinal well into 2018. He was written off by many for a variety of reasons. Then, after being unsure if he’d even play the tournament, he blitzed through Wimbledon including an all-time Semifinal against Nadal and emerged a champion once again. With Chris Paul and Blake Griffin no longer Clippers, I can probably say with quite a bit of confidence that Djokovic is my favorite current athlete, and watching him win another Slam was very rewarding.

So why won’t I shut up about tennis? Rooting for Novak Djokovic has rewritten what rooting for an underdog can end up as. Djokovic is still leaps and bounds less popular than Federer and Nadal, in fact his winning records against both players has made him much less popular around the world than he should be. I don’t know a single other person that roots for Djokovic like I do, but being outnumbered has never been a problem. Watching someone like him break big gives me hope that I did not have before. When I see the Clippers making slow changes in their front office, I’m more confident for long-term success and the possibility of eventually hitting that Djokovic-esque 2011/2015 run. Obviously team sports are so much different than an individual sport like tennis, but these victories help fuel my belief in my teams, and teaches me the value in loyalty when it comes to fandom. A Clipper championship would likely dwarf any other sports achievement I could follow, but at least I’ll have an idea of what the mountaintop feels like. I hope, in the midst of this current rebuild, that all my fellow Clipper fans do too.