Novak Djokovic: A Personal Brand Ace

Novak Djokovic: A Personal Brand Ace

Managing a personal brand is a lifetime commitment: i) because it requires self-knowledge; ii) because it takes a lot of work; (iii) because we’re on our own. Just like tennis!

« Last, but not least, I would like to thank this court… I would like to thank Rod Laver Arena… I love you each year more and more… The love affair keeps going. Thank you so much. »

When Novak Djokovic delivered this speech on 2 February 2021, he could never have imagined that his relationship with the Australian Open would enter a period of crisis in January of the following year. After all, this tournament had just won the Serb his ninth trophy, confirming the honeymoon phase of a love affair started in 2008.

It’s complicated…

However, with each news item published, and suspicion launched, we witnessed the sad demise taking place between the two members of the couple.  The reason for the breakup?  Simple: “until the vaccine do us part…”.  On the one hand, Djokovic used his diplomatic vein to get around all questions about his vaccination status against COVID-19:

« Doesn’t really matter whether it’s vaccination or anything else in life. You should have the freedom to choose, to decide what you want to do. In this particular case, what you want to put in your body. »

He didn’t want to lay his whole game out on the table right from the start. It’s understandable. To announce his firm decision that he would refuse to get vaccinated, for whatever reason, would generate a media upheaval against him that would throw into question not only his participation in numerous tournaments, but also his market value with thedifferent stakeholders: Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP); Serbian Tennis Federation;  organizers of the circuit tournaments;  Sponsors;  coaches; current and former players; public opinion in his home country;  tennis fans; media; political sphere; diplomatic sphere, etc.

So, one word too many or too little, can mortgage many of your aspirations.  The point is that playing coy was simply postponing a negative decision. This is because, on the other side of the barricade, was a government that had uncompromisingly imposed vaccination against COVID-19 as a mandatory requirement for entry into Australia.  As such, aware of the draconian sacrifices Australians had made to contain the virus, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Alex Hawke Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs would never accept a foreigner disrespecting the pro-vaccination civil order. At the end of the day, this decision is understandable: with elections on the horizon (21 May 2022), the political and health status quo had to be maintained. Public opinion would not forgive this exception on polling day.  On a parallel plane, the coercive action of mainstream media, converted into propaganda agencies, and the prolonged strong arm between the highest figures of the Serbian and Australian states, intensified the conflict which had already reached a global scale. Literally everyone had an opinion on the strained relationship between the couple and we were privy to the show that followed: 8 hours of questioning on arrival in Melbourne, two visa cancellations, lawsuits filed by both parties, and on the eve before the tournament launched, on January 16, 2022, the tennis player ended up being deported. A few months later, after winning his seventh Wimbledon trophy, Djokovic expressed the following assessment:

« Certainly, this year has not been the same like last years. It has started the way it has started and it has affected me definitely in the first several months of the year. I was not feeling great generally. I mean, mentally, emotionally, I was not at a good place. I wanted to play, but at the same time, when I went out on the court I felt so much pressure and emotions happening […].

Once I left Australia, I left that behind me. I was ready to move on, but it wasn’t easy to close that chapter because I had the media, all of you guys, reminding me of that. Many (other) people, the travel, some unpleasant situations as well, the same movie that I was unfortunately part of in Australia was replaying. That caused turbulence inside of me. I need time to weather the storm […].

The game was there. I know what my qualities are, what my tennis is. It’s just all these things off the court that were causing so much distraction and pressure that I had to deal with, not just myself but people around me […].

I’m not vaccinated and I’m not planning to get vaccinated so the only good news I can have is them removing the mandated green vaccine card or whatever you call it to enter United States, or exemption. Now I am on vacation. Whether or not I’m playing any tournament soon, I’ll definitely be resting for the next couple weeks because it has been quite an exhausting and demanding period for me the last few months. »

Can you imagine the rollercoaster of emotions this man has gone through? Amid the storm, Nole did not fail to be father, son, husband, brother, citizen, a human being – a human being who just wanted to do what he likes best: play tennis. And that’s the point I’d like to focus on: Novak Djokovic, the human being, and his personal brand.

Personal Brand: who are you, and what can you do for me?

To carefully analyze the nuances of this case, we should first define what a personal brand is. It is simply our exposure to the world; it is who we are in contact with the reality of everyday life.  In turn, managing a personal brand means defining and consolidating our identity, adapting it to the challenges and needs of different audiences.  Does this seem complex?  Let’s get into it.

It is personal, conscious, and strategic work that, to generate long-term benefits – the objectives we set out with – requires a harmonious dance between two dimensions: the internal dimension and the external dimension.

The first, which I call behind-the-scenes work, invites us to look inside ourselves and to clarify what our mission, values, skills, personality traits and personal stories are.  These elements constitute our compass; our core; the backbone of our character that help us make decisions and decide which way to go. The second dimension, which I call perception work, requires more game. It is about working the positioning of our brand, managing expectations, and meeting the needs of the people with whom we interact daily. Among them: family members, friends, leadership, peers, customers, etc. In other words, this second dimension means cultivating relationships of closeness and trust through concrete and intentional actions.  This is something we all strive to do. Right? So, we all work our personal brand, even if we don’t know it.

The Djokovic brand

Atticus, a philosopher from Ancient Rome, said he did not know strong people with an easy past. Me neither. Only in adversity does our character find the time and space to solidify and strengthen, just like the trunk of a tree that remains firm and resistant to the greatest gusts of a storm. And what does this have to do with the protagonist of this story? Everything.

Now, if I think of a brand that knows how to deal with adversity, the Djoker appears right on my evoked set. Passionate about tennis since I was a kid, and a fan of the Serb since I first saw him play at the Estoril Open in 2007 when I was 14, I can tell you that I know his story well. Plus, I know how hard he had to work to get here. Maybe that’s why I associate him with this word so much!  

In his book ‘Serve to Win‘, the world’s current No. 5 talks about the difficulties his family experienced when his hometown of Belgrade was bombed by NATO forces during the Kosovo War (1999).  The city, the neighborhood, the house, it was all destroyed. And he witnessed all this misery.  Fortunately, the family had a plan B. An aunt lived in a building with an air raid shelter just 300 meters from home.  They stayed there for 78 consecutive nights.  At the time, Nole was 11, and was the oldest of three siblings. However, tennis was already part of his life. The dream was there.  What he really wanted was to be able to keep playing.  And wouldn’t you know, that’s just what he did?

« But the war didn’t stop me from pursuing tennis. During the days, I would meet Jelena [his coach] somewhere in Belgrade to practice; she stuck by me and tried to help me live a normal life, even after her sister was fatally wounded when a wall collapsed on her. We’d go to the site of the most recent attacks, figuring that if they bombed one place yesterday, they probably wouldn’t bomb it today. We played without nets, we played on broken concrete. My friend Ana Ivanovic even had to practice in an abandoned swimming pool. And when we dared, we snuck backed to our local tennis club, Partizan. »

Analyzing his career, Djokovic’s character was never consensual in the world of tennis.  From mimicking his colleague’s tics and those of older legends, to claims of injury halfway through games, bouncing the ball on the ground too many times before serving, broken rackets, provoking the public and his father’s intrusive comments… Each of these thorns in his side prevented the Balkan tennis player from fully asserting himself as a top player in the sport. All this changed when, after committing a traumatic double foul on January 27, 2010, he decided that something had to change. He changed his diet by eliminating gluten, and his physical markers improved. Results began to appear.  Expectations were elevated and so were the demands. Thus, Nole and his entourage gained motivation to work harder on all the strategic elements of his game (flexibility; speed; endurance; quality of service and response to service; right, left strokes; etc.), as well as in the various ancillary areas (nutrition; rest; meditation; emotional intelligence; etc.). As can be seen it was a multidisciplinary functional endeavor that required tremendous discipline and determination. First, so that Nole’s quality of play would gain consistency in the longer duels, and throughout the season. Then, so that his childhood dream – being Wimbledon champion and no. 1 tennis player could be more than just a pipedream, but a goal within reach. In July 2011, the dream came true, and his tennis game hit stratospheric levels.

From that moment on, his approach matured, and the ‘Djokovic’ brand began to be optimized towards a more sober, professional, and respectful version, albeit the ongoing controversies that surrounded him.  Despite the uneven performances and titles won over the past 12 years, this ball-hitting machine has managed to gain the status of one of the best tennis players in history.  This meteoric rise led to a predicament that I would describe as odd, which would only come to underscore the emphasis on adversity that makes up his character. The Serb became the destabilizing element of the perfect bromance between arch-rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

The duo, who had become accustomed to dominating the finals of major tournaments for years on end, who were beloved by the public and the media, now had to share the limelight with this mood damper. In other words, Djokovic was becoming the third person in a two-person relationship that was not supposed to be open. To the disappointment of many, this is exactly what he became.  As a result of these clashes with different “opposing forces”, the tenacity and mental strength that characterized him in those truly titanic battles within the court, where the crowds celebrated his opponent’s points, really came to a head. Interestingly, with the advent of COVID-19, his brand’s competitive advantages were also useful outside the court.

No-vax: food for thought!

Analyzing these events from a sporting, reputational, commercial or financial point of view, when Djokovic decided not to get vaccinated, he had much more to lose than he had to win. For that reason, some of us may have thought, “But why didn’t you just get the vaccine over and done with and move on?”

Well, it is here, at this is the precise point where you will find a huge difference between a personal brand and a corporate brand. Whereas a product or service changes its manufacturing process to keep up with market trends, with the Djoker we are talking about people. People made of emotion and reason, feelings, and critical thinking who are prone to plunge into a wave of dilemmas, anxieties, questions and internal conflicts, when faced with the need to make a decision with repercussions on their well-being, as well as their physical, mental and emotional health; especially as a professional high-performance athlete.

As you and I both know, this is a serious and delicate matter in which requires each person to investigate, collect information through the sources we deem most reliable, analyze, reflect, and then make the choice that is best for our own organism.

In my view, more than a media episode starring tennis’s no. 1, the “No-Vax” case has the added value of bringing up a set of fundamental question for all of us. Is it better to stay true to our principles, or to the principles of others? Is it better to control what enters our body, and take on the responsibility of taking care of our health, or leave it to external entities? Is it better to allow yourself to be jabbed with an experimental therapy the adverse effects of which are still not clear, or strengthen our immune systems while maintaining a healthy lifestyle day after day? Finally, is it preferable to live with a clear conscience, or to live with the comfort that validation from the outside world brings us?

Unlike Galileo Galilei but rather like Jesus Christ, Djokovic did not waiver. He accepted his public crucifixion in the name of his truth.  Regardless if our own option differs, which is totally legitimate, we must never fail to admire someone willing to sacrifice their entire career – which in this case means fighting to be the best tennis player of all time – to be true to their convictions.

Let’s look at the facts. At the time he was the No.1 ATP ranking player; he broke the record for the longest standing tennis player to hold this ranking (373 weeks); the player who most often finished the season in the lead ranking (7), and the player to take home the most ATP Masters 1000 (37). Last year he was also on track to achieving a feat that, in the current Opens era, had only been achieved by Rod Laver – making the so-called “Grand Slam” – winning the four major tournaments of the circuit in a single year. He just needed to have won one match. Can you imagine!  If he had won, he would also have become the record holder for the most Grand Slams won (21, surpassing Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who held 20 each).  In the end, numbers are like cotton: they don’t lie!

Every time, I start praising a person too much, it seems that I get a note from Heaven that says, “Tomás, don’t you worship people as if they’re Gods! There is only one God! Be careful! “And no, I’m not going worship anyone.  To be honest I just like to study the history of people with substance, and Novak Djokovic is one of them. As a Portuguese Olympic athlete recently said, sport is a very becoming metaphor for life. It’s an extraordinary metaphor. 

Putting things into perspective, the protagonist of this story, over his 35 years of existence:

Got some winners.

Suffered break points.

Committed double faults.

Fell, learned, and moved on.

Like all of us.

Back together

Last week we received the news that Andrew Giles, the new Australian Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs, has made the decision to issue a new visa for Djokovic’s entry into the country. The Serb will be able to return to Melbourne to compete in the 2023 Australian Open. “Hey, guys! Have you heard the latest? The couple made up! Hooray!” The love affair continues…

In conclusion, the events narrated here lead me to prove the following adage:  a personal brand is inseparable from the personal and professional context. It’s about the prevalence of coherence and consistency of how we act, especially when it goes against established norms. Whether by our class mates, our wider circle of friends, family, workplace, or the pressures of society, how many of us have felt like outliers, like fish out of water? I think everyone. That is why acting according to our conscience is a heroic act, and why managing a personal brand is a lifelong commitment: i) because it requires self-knowledge; ii) because it takes a lot of work; (iii) because we’re on our own. Just like tennis!

Regardless of what Djokovic achieves at the next Australian Open, there are values that are worth more than any match point…

Independence. Courage. Perseverance.

In a world where we all seek to be followed, this is the brand we should choose to follow.

Leave A Comment

O seu endereço de email não será publicado. Campos obrigatórios marcados com *