Last January, at the height of the Djoković debacle in Australia, I made the Twitter acquaintance of an American Novak fan named Claire (a.k.a. @luvinthetennis). Almost immediately, I was struck by how substantive and articulate her tweets were, including long threads about how the international media was—and, ideally, should be—covering the story. So, it didn’t come as a complete surprise when I eventually learned that Claire is a writer. (I’ll leave it to her to decide when and how to introduce herself more fully.) Like many fans I’ve met at tournaments, Claire doesn’t fit the stereotype of “Nole Fam” that has developed over the past decade, especially online—and this is one reason why I was interested in her personal path to fandom.
When I found out that, like me, Claire and her husband Pat would be traveling to Melbourne for this year’s Australian Open, I made a point of meeting them. We chatted a few times around the grounds before Claire and I found a shady spot to talk before the men’s singles final. She and Pat had arrived as the gates opened that Sunday to score seats outside Rod Laver Arena, so they could get the full Garden Square experience.
Before focusing on her Novak fandom, I asked Claire about her relationship to tennis in general. She told me she’d started watching the sport as a child, during the later years of the Evert-Navratilova rivalry. “I was the only person in the family who cared about tennis at all,” she noted, “and I remember being extremely young and just staring at the screen and sort of figuring out how scoring works. And, little by little, I just fell in love with what they were doing. I was a big Martina fan.” She kept watching as new players arrived on the scene, eventually becoming an Agassi fan: “that’s when I became a devoted fan and I started really following it. And I loved him. I loved his career: up and down, lots of drama and fun. Then he retired and I actually wasn’t interested in anyone else who was playing. I was also a huge Monica Seles fan, by the way; but then I stopped watching the women play [after] the stabbing.”
As for Djoković, Claire admits she “didn’t even know that Novak existed” until the summer he first ascended to the men’s #1 spot. “I was visiting a friend one day,” she recounted, “and that friend had the US Open on. It was 2011 and I saw Novak playing. I was talking to my friend, with the [tv] sound off, and I kept getting diverted because I loved the tennis. I was saying, ‘His tennis reminds me of Agassi’s tennis’: the precision shots, the baselining, the crisp returns. But he’s such a different player. He has so much passion just rolling off of him—and I love that about him. So, in the end, I started staring at the screen, and my friend and I watched the rest of the match. I know that a fan was born then and I’ve been following him ever since.”
However, like many Americans, it was challenging for Claire to be more than a casual fan due to the fragmented way tennis is broadcast in the US: “I don’t tend to pay for extra channels…. So, I would only see the majors.” Two more recent events contributed to Claire’s becoming a “really huge Novak fan.” First, significant personal losses in 2019; then, the start of the pandemic in 2020. “I was stuck at home, and I had some other big things going on in my life that were difficult and painful to work through. I needed a good distraction,” she said.
In fact, it was Djoković’s default at the 2020 US Open that seems to have transformed her fandom from a pastime into something more like a project. Claire “was shocked at the vitriol he got for” hitting a line judge with an errant ball, “since he obviously did not do it on purpose”; and she felt motivated to try “to figure out why” he was getting such a reaction.
I’ll let Claire take it from here. (What follows is an edited version of our conversation; though I made minor changes for clarity, I mostly cut for length.)
C: The more I looked into it—the more I would dig and watch previous matches, would see some press conferences with him—I started to realize how misrepresented [Novak] has been in the press. And that really annoyed me because the more I watched those pressers, the more I really liked this guy. I was only into his tennis [at first] and I didn’t care that he broke a racquet—I love to see passion on the tennis court. But I actually fell in love with him as a person once I started to dig deep and see who he was.
So, I just got more and more devoted to him, watching all these old matches. It was a great distraction during the pandemic—and I really needed it. Then, I followed his 2021 calendar Grand Slam race. I was so devastated with the loss in the US Open final; but it was a great season and I was excited to start again. And here comes 2022 Australian Open! We all know what happened there…
I was completely devastated by that and I realized I had really connected with him. And, again, a lot of things had been happening in my life: I lost both of my parents, six weeks apart, right before the pandemic; and I couldn’t be with my sister and brother to grieve over that. So, I think what happened to me was that I was using Novak’s tennis to sort of help me through that period of grief, watching all those old matches, watching his career [develop], being so impressed with his commitment to excellence, watching all his old press conferences, finding out what a great guy he is. I just became really attached to him as a person—in a weird way, since I know he’s a person I’ll never meet.
I really appreciate what he did for me. He helped me through the worst time of my life, really, and so I wanted to come here and support him.
AM: Going back to what you said about how, during the pandemic and after the US Open default, you started to dig into old matches and that kind of thing. This may seem like a strange question, but I’m curious how you came to the conclusion that he was being misrepresented. In other words, did you go on Twitter and meet a bunch of Novak fans, for whom that is a big issue? Or is that a conclusion you drew simply on the basis of watching him, reading his press conferences, and then reading the coverage?
C: No, I came to it completely on my own and this is how it happened. When I saw the disqualification, I went on to Twitter. This is how I follow the news—by Twitter—because I follow a lot of journalists who post articles. And I saw that it was trending, so I was looking at what people were saying. I didn’t land on Djoković fans at first. I was just reading these really vitriolic comments that did not match what I had seen [on tv]. You know, disqualification—fair, not fair—people can disagree about that. But it’s clear he didn’t do it on purpose. And I was seeing people say, “Well, of course he did it on purpose; he’s that kind of person.” In effect, they were saying that, and I was just very curious about that, so I started looking into it.
I had heard the commentary on the US Open 2020, [in which] they kept referring to the Adria Tour, and how supposedly badly Novak had behaved during the pandemic. I was curious about that too; so, I went back and read a news article about it, and I was like, “Oh, that’s kind of disappointing.” And then I read another news article and I thought, “Well, wait, those two things don’t really match.” Then, actually, I started digging around and I found the piece that you did on it. And I read the details and realized that it was being misrepresented.
AM: Thank you for being one of the 15 people who’s read my blog.
C: Well, you did such a great job of covering that and you answered all my questions. It was just very clear to me, because the things that I was seeing about the Adria Tour just didn’t really make sense. They kept saying, “He organized this event” and “Novak did this thing.” And I thought, “This was a whole country—a region, actually. One man cannot organize an event [like this on his own]. Obviously, he had to follow rules, he had to be in touch with people who would allow these things. So, what on earth is going on here?” As you pointed out, there was a big soccer event at the same time [etc.]. So, it was just very clear that was being misrepresented.
But the real key part of feeling like he’s been misrepresented through the years is when I went back. I actually followed every Grand Slam victory he’s had: I watched every semifinal I could get in whole and every final, and I watched highlights of other things. I went chronologically because I wanted to understand what had happened.
AM: So, you started roughly in 2007?
C: Yeah, I did.
AM: Okay. Wow.
C: I would listen to the match commentary, then I would go to the presser—almost all this stuff is available online, if you look for it. I would hear the things that the commentators were saying about him—something he had done or said, or they would quote him, “Well, in his press conference, Novak said ‘blah, blah, blah’—and I’d go back and listen. And I was like, “Oh, they took that entirely out of context. Interesting.” And that just kept happening and happening and happening. I mean, commentators that I have no reason to think are intentionally misrepresenting him, but they are taking things out of context and twisting what the meaning is. I’ve actually been very shocked by it. I had no idea.
AM: I happen to know—because I found out a little bit about you before we met in person, now, for the first time—that you studied linguistics [in graduate school]. Do you think there’s any connection between your study of linguistics and how you approached reading and viewing the pressers? Is there any link there?
C: I think there’s one small link there in that I’m very aware of language barriers. So, when I am listening to how Novak answers a question, I feel like I can tell when he didn’t catch all the connotations that were in the question. So, he’s answering it a little bit differently because he heard it differently. I feel like I can tell what he means to be saying, sometimes, when he doesn’t use quite the same word we would use—and maybe, because of the phrasing or the word he uses, it has a negative connotation or a connotation no American or English speaker would put in it. I can kind of tell what he’s going for.
I think that’s true of anyone, if you pay attention, you watch everything in its entirety, and you take someone on good faith. That’s the key—you take someone on good faith. I think anyone can see that. But, yes, I think I do pay even closer attention to that—I’m a writer and I studied linguistics. So, I do pay attention to what’s going on, how people are wording things, why they’re wording them the way they are. And I’m very aware of the language barrier, even though he’s a fluent speaker of English and has a much higher vocabulary level than your average English speaker, frankly. Still, he says things in a different way sometimes—and I’m aware of that.
AM: Obviously, someone reading this won’t necessarily see what you’re wearing. But I can’t help but note that you’ve got on a t-shirt that says, “No, I’m not Serbian, but I’m 100% Novakian.” There’s this myth that the majority of Novak fans around the world are Serbian—and you’re kind of debunking that on your very body. [Note: after posting this, I learned both the identity of the woman who came up with the original shirt idea in 2021 and that still other fans have created variations on the theme. Djoković himself has joked about this media narrative.]
Also, you’re not from Novak’s part of the world—I mean, you’re not from Europe; you’re not from Eastern Europe; you’re not from the former Yugoslavia; you’re not from Serbia. As far as I’m aware, you don’t have any connection to that part of the world. You may not “get” him and get his background in the same way that people who do have that in common with him do. So, I’m curious both what you make of that myth (that all, or the majority, of his fans have ties to Serbia) and what it is about Novak that you connect to, despite the significant age gap as well as cultural differences?
C: The first question, what do I make of the myth? I feel like the people who are shaping the tennis narrative—the primary people in the media who shape the tennis narrative and who have shaped the narrative of the Big 3—I think they find Novak off-putting. I mean, I don’t see any other way to think about that. I’m sure they must admire his tennis and probably some of them admire him and like him; but, overall, they seem to find him off-putting. So, I think that when they see fans waving flags with his face on it—which is inevitably going to be a Serbian flag—they just assume only people who are connected with Serbia can like him, because he’s so unlikable. I really think that this is what they believe: he’s so unlikable that the only fans are people who only care about pretty tennis, first of all, a small segment of people, but the devoted fans must be connected to Serbia in some way. I think that they think that—and I think that they have to be completely wrong about that. I mean, I myself have met people who love him and have no connection to Serbia. I don’t know why it’s so hard for them to believe.
AM: If you had to guess, or if you’ve seen articles or coverage, what are the handful of things that you think they think make him unlikable?
C: I think that they don’t like the way that he responds to difficulty on the court and the way that he manages his matches when he’s fighting various things. Mind you, from what I can tell (because I’ve watched him play Andy Murray quite a bit, because I’ve watched his career), Andy Murray has a very similar way of managing himself on the court. And, yet, it’s okay. So, I think that they don’t like it that he smashes racquets. I think they don’t like it that he screams Serbian curse words. I think they don’t like it when he yells at his box, even though they have no idea what he’s saying to them.
I just think that he gets this over-scrutiny of how he behaves, and people expect him to behave a certain way. And I think he sort of gives off all this passion that Anglo people—so, Americans and UK and Australians—find distasteful. Somehow, Andy Murray is able to do all that, and it doesn’t bother them a bit. So, it may have a certain color to it that’s sort of intangible.
AM: Back to the second part of the original question: why do you connect with Novak?
C: We’re getting into the realm of emotion and intangibles here…. You know, I connect with his authenticity. There’s this sense that there’s a veneer over people who come from a certain class—who are raised a certain way, live a certain way. There’s kind of a veneer there. And those of us who were not don’t have that veneer.
AM: I saw, on your Twitter feed, photos of your passports—is it true that you and your husband did not have passports before you planned this trip?
C: That is true. I mean, we had them once, but they were well expired.
AM: When was the last time you took an overseas trip?
C: I took one single overseas trip before this one when I was 15 years old. That’s the only time I’ve been outside of the country.
AM: So, this is your second trip—in your life—outside of the country…
AM: and you came from Maine to Melbourne…
C: That’s right.
AM: to see Novak Djoković?
C: To see Novak Djoković, yes.
AM: Whom you’ve never seen play live?
C: I’ve never seen him in person—I had never attended a tennis match before in my life.
AM: What was the route that you guys took from where you live in Maine?
C: We drove to the Portland airport and we took a plane from Portland, Maine to Philadelphia; and then we took a plane from Philadelphia to LA and from LA to Melbourne.
AM: And how long did that take?
C: It took us over 24 hours to get here, door to door.
AM: Why did you and your apparently very supportive husband decide to travel in January, when it’s not a natural kind of break? It’s not the holidays; it’s not a normal vacation time. Why did you guys feel it was worth the time and money to do that?
C: Well, I really wanted to see Novak play in person, ever since what happened last year in Australia. I was really afraid that Australia had destroyed his career—very afraid. I still believe that Novak is probably the only tennis player who could endure what he endured and come back from it. And I was really afraid it was all over. So, when Novak wound up getting deported, I just told Pat, “I will see this man play. If he’s going to play again, I will make sure I see him play.”
Even though I won’t meet him or have a chance to talk to him, I can at least be there, put the vibe out there to support him, and thank him in my own personal way for his tennis—and cheer him on whenever he’s playing. I had originally wanted to go to the Serbia Open; and then I couldn’t get my [stuff] together in time to do that…. So, once I couldn’t do that, I thought, “Well, I’ll go to Belgrade next year”—and then I found out that they were not going to play in Belgrade. And so I said, “Ok, I’ve been avoiding the obvious: I need to go to the Australian Open.”
AM: Do you think that if Novak had been allowed into the United States last summer, you would have gone to the US Open instead?
C: Yes. I know I would have gotten to Belgrade as well, so I may have ended up in this situation anyway; but I definitely would have gone to the US Open to support him.
AM: Is there anything else that you feel like it would be important for readers (in Serbia) to know about why you and your husband came—or your experience since you’ve been here?
C: I will only say that I still really want to go to Belgrade—and I plan to go the next time Novak plays in Belgrade. I probably won’t go to Banja Luka, now that we spent all this money on Australia; but I will go next year.
From what I have seen of his [domestic] fans—and I have now interacted with a lot of Serbian fans and a lot of Aussie-Serbian fans—I understand how they made Novak. I feel like there’s a lot of love there and a lot of pride in him; and I would love to be in his home city and be surrounded by that and experience Belgrade and Novak Djoković [together] in a trip. I would love to connect with him, his home, and his people. And, again, I have no idea why. All I know is that I am so thankful for him and his tennis—and, so, I’m very thankful for Serbia for making him.
After he won the title and finished the English portion of his press conference, Djoković spoke at length to the Serbian media. I took the opportunity to tell him about Claire. (Watch our exchange, which was a bit more of a back and forth than I’ve presented in translation below, and you’ll be able to interpret Novak’s facial expressions for yourself.)
AM: I met a woman here, a member of “Nole Fam,” who came to Australia all the way from Maine, on the far east coast of the US. Before this week, she’d never seen a live professional tennis match and hadn’t traveled outside the country in nearly 40 years. She didn’t even have a valid passport. She came to see you. What does hearing things like this mean to you?”
NĐ: I didn’t know that—it’s the first time I’m hearing this story. So, thanks for calling it to my attention; and I’ll look into it because this kind of story truly fulfills me and I’m very grateful. The support I’ve had this year is really something sacrosanct, something beautiful. I mean, I’ve always had support in Australia from lots of people, especially the Serbian community. Of course, I’ve also seen people who came from China and [other parts of] Asia to support me—and I thank them a lot for that. But this year’s support, really, both in the stadium and outside it in the Square, was probably the best, biggest, strongest, loudest ever. I think they also recognized the importance of this moment and this year, considering last year’s events, and that somehow they wanted to be there for me, to give me wings—and that’s exactly what they did. So, from the heart, thank you.