Controversy follows Djokovic everywhere -- but he keeps winning

Novak Djokovic is into the fourth round at Roland Garros, eyeing a shot at the men's Grand Slam record. Julian Finney/Getty Images

On Monday after his first-round win, Novak Djokovic was asked about a study done earlier in May evaluating which players receive proportionally the most negative messages on social media.

The study came back with Djokovic as the leading candidate on the men's side.

"Does that surprise you?" Djokovic said at the news conference. "I'd be surprised if it were any way different. As Kobe Bryant used to say, 'Haters are a good problem to have. Nobody hates the good ones. They hate the great ones.'"

On Sunday, Djokovic faces Juan Pablo Varillas in the fourth round as he tries to cement his spot in men's tennis immortality. Djokovic has 22 Grand Slams -- a record only matched by Rafael Nadal in the men's game. He will go down as an all-time great, but has been a polarizing figure in tennis.

Last year started with deportation from Australia, then he was later unable to play at the US Open at the end of the year because of his unvaccinated status. He might have wanted 2023 to be a year where the focus was purely on his incredible on-court record. But here at Roland Garros the narrative has been dominated by what he wrote on a camera at the end of his opening-round win over Aleksandar Kovacevic: "Kosovo is the heart of Serbia! Stop the violence." The comments received criticism from the Kosovo Tennis Federation, while the French minister of sport Amelie Oudea-Castera called them "not appropriate."

After two days of political blowback and criticism of his Kosovo comments, Djokovic was asked Wednesday after his second-round victory over Marton Fucsovics whether he regretted the sentiments. He responded: "I'm aware that a lot of people would disagree, but it is what it is. It's something that I stand for. So that's all."

In Paris, there has also been a fascination with some of his takes on technology. During the victory over Fucsovics, television cameras showed him changing shirts, with a small, cent-sized device attached to his chest. When asked about it afterward, Djokovic didn't elaborate. "You know, my team delivers an incredibly efficient nanotechnology to help me deliver my best on the court, so that's the biggest secret of my career. If it wasn't for that, I probably wouldn't be sitting here."

Italian company Taopatch Sport claimed to have produced it. The explanation on its website said it was a piece of nanotechnology with "two layers of nanocrystals that convert heat from your body into light." When asked about this again after his third-round win, Djokovic reiterated the same ambiguous message: "I'm trying to be the Iron Man of tennis."

Through it all, he has been moving through the draw at Roland Garros, with all three victories following a similar pattern. The first set featured him railing against something -- whether it was the clay or himself -- and looking increasingly frustrated with his box of supporters, but eventually coming out on top. In the second set, there was a shift. His shots were landing and the match began turning in his favor. Before too long, he was doing his salute to all four sides of Court Philippe-Chatrier, talking about the next stage of his charge to possible Grand Slam No. 23.

"It's no secret that one of the main reasons I play today and compete in professional tennis is to try to break more records and make more history in tennis," Djokovic said before the start of Roland Garros. "That's extremely motivating and inspiring for me."

Watching Djokovic is to see an athlete locked in. On grass, his favorite surface, matches show efficient ruthlessness. But on clay, in front of French Open fans who are firmly favorites of Nadal, there are moments where emotions break through his mask of inscrutability.

Take his third-round triumph over Alejandro Davidovich Fokina. At the end of the second set after the victory in a tiebreak, Djokovic let out an explosion of emotion. He later put it down to the relief of establishing himself a platform to close in straight sets. "It was cat and mouse every single point, trying to outsmart your opponent," he said afterward.

After that flurry of fist pumps and guttural roaring, he spent the break between sets getting treatment on his thigh, but also attempting to stir up a crowd which had been siding with the underdog.

By and large, he ignores whatever is thrown his way from the stands, describing his relationship with crowds as "up and down," but occasionally he snaps. "You know, they are people, they're groups or whatever, that love to boo every single thing you do," Djokovic said after beating Davidovich Fokina. "That's something that I find disrespectful and I frankly don't understand that. But it's their right. They paid the ticket. They can do whatever they want.

"At times, you know, I will stay quiet. Not at times. Actually, 99 percent of the time I will stay quiet. Sometimes I will oppose that, because I feel when somebody is disrespectful, you know, he or she deserves to have an answer to that. That's what it is all about."

It's been another week in the Djokovic whirlwind, but he keeps recording wins. Whatever controversy is around him, he's learned to channel that into fuel. "You know, drama-free Grand Slam? I don't think it can happen for me," he said after that second-round conquest. "You know, I guess that drives me as well."