Rafael Nadal's win over Daniil Medvedev in the Australian Open final on Sunday was a truly historic event, and was treated by everyone as such. The passionate cries of joy from fans in the stadium were followed by teary-eyed tributes in the media, and it didn't take long for athletes and celebrities from outside the sport to breathlessly chime in too. For a full 24 hours, tennis seemed to have transcended its boundaries and become a global pop culture phenomenon.
But there was a dark lining to this silver cloud. And it came in the form of a press conference which, while not dimming any of the shine of Nadal's moment, did make us take our gaze away from the blinding lights for a second.
In the early hours of Monday morning, Daniil Medvedev started his press conference with a long monologue on his changing aspirations as a tennis player. The Russian looked thoroughly disillusioned about something without specifically naming what it was, and ended the soliloquy by saying that the kid in him had "stopped dreaming".
A couple of follow-up questions made it clear what Medvedev was referring to; the Russian felt that he was treated unfairly by the crowd.
"Before Rafa serves even in the fifth set, there would be somebody," Medvedev said when asked whether the crowd had anything to do with his disillusionment. "I would even be surprised, like one guy screaming, 'C'mon, Daniil'. A thousand people would be like, 'Tsss, tsss, tsss'. That sound. Before my serve, I didn't hear it. It's disappointing. It's disrespectful. I'm not sure after 30 years I'm going to want to play tennis."
Medvedev didn't stop there; he went on to suggest that fans who claim they want the younger generation to challenge the Big 3 are "lying".
"I remember there were a lot of talks, young generation should do better, or there were talks like people saying we really want young generation to go for it, to be better, to be stronger," Medvedev said about facing Federer, Nadal and Djokovic in his early years. "I was, like, pumped up. Yeah, let's try to give them hard time and everything. Well, I guess these people were lying because every time I stepped on the court in these big matches, I really didn't see much people who wanted me to win."
The most shocking claim, however, came when Medvedev was asked whether his nationality had anything to do with lack of crowd support. The 25-year-old stated in very clear terms that he believes there is an inherent bias against Russian players in the tennis world.
"I think nationality plays a key," Medvedev said. "It's just that Russian tennis was a little bit down for some time. I think I'm trying really...But yeah, I can definitely see when you playing somebody from the other country, they would go for them and not for the Russian."
From the straight and narrow perspective, it is easy to dismiss Medvedev's comments as the rant of a man who had just suffered unqualified heartbreak. The Russian was up two sets and three break points in the final, looking all but guaranteed to win a second Major title, but Nadal's turbo-charged comeback ended up shattering his hopes.
It's natural to be hurting after such a loss, and even more natural to vent when a mic is thrust into your face.
But when a rant has some grain of truth in it, is it still a rant? There is no question that Medvedev was not the crowd favorite on Sunday. While Nadal was cheered on like a rockstar every time he made a good play, Medvedev was booed and hissed at from start to finish.
There were even distracting noises made between his first and second serves. By the middle of the match it was clear that the Russian was facing not one opponent but two - Nadal and the crowd.
Does that sound familiar? Well of course it does. For the better part of the last decade, Novak Djokovic has been getting similar receptions in his matches against Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
Medvedev hasn't just inherited the mantle of baseliner extraordinaire from Djokovic; he has inherited the tag of villain too.
There have been some rationalizations for this over the years, one of which is centered around how little Djokovic (and now Medvedev) are affected by the negativity. In fact, a widespread opinion is that Djokovic in particular plays better when the crowd is against him, and so he shouldn't have any reason to complain.
The first part of that sentence may well be true (I personally think it is). When you rewatch the US Open 2015 and Wimbledon 2019 finals, you can see how energized Djokovic got every time he was provoked or distracted by the crowd. There is nobody in tennis who likes proving a point more than the Serb, so it makes sense that he'd produce his best tennis when pushed to the edge by a disapproving audience.
But have we ever stopped to think how unpleasant it must be for Djokovic to keep finding himself in situations where he is booed and heckled? He may have used the negativity as fuel for his tennis, but how much of a toll would that have taken on his peace of mind?
Do players like Djokovic and Medvedev deserve the hate that they get, even if they have learned how to deal with it?
Daniil Medvedev and Novak Djokovic, the victims of tennis' equivalent of bullying
Another rationalization that you often hear for negative crowd behavior is that the player may have done something dishonorable to prompt it. And admittedly, neither Novak Djokovic nor Daniil Medvedev is the most well-behaved player on the court.
They both frequently smash their rackets out of frustration, get into arguments with umpires (Medvedev more than Djokovic in this regard), and even sometimes treat their surroundings with negligent disregard (see US Open 2020).
When Medvedev's hurt-filled monologue started doing the rounds of social media late on Sunday night, a popular response was that he had brought it upon himself. The Russian had claimed a week earlier that hecklers in the crowd have "low IQ", which was just the latest in a series of altercations with the crowd. If you can't take it then don't dish it out, right?
Djokovic's case is a little less straightforward, but still easy enough for a keen mind to explain away. He has controversial beliefs about science, has famously refused to get vaccinated, and has been defaulted from a Slam for accidentally hitting a linesperson. Surely such a person is fair game when he steps out on the court?
Yes, he is fair game - for a bully.
Djokovic's personal beliefs or his past misdemeanors (none of which have been criminally large) shouldn't be reason enough for crowds to gang up on him, and yet they have been. His on-court behavior has never been as bad as that of, say, Nick Kyrgios or Benoit Paire, and yet he is treated worse than both. How much of a role does his head-to-head superiority over Federer and Nadal play in that?
Medvedev, meanwhile, implied on Sunday that he has been deprived of crowd support ever since his formative years. But the Russian's thorny relationship with stadium spectators first came to the fore only at the 2019 US Open, where he even infamously flipped the bird in public.
Who can forget that immortal line - "I want all of you to know when you sleep tonight that I won because of you" - that Medvedev threw at the booing crowds after winning his third-round match?
It is easy to forget, however, that Medvedev never asked anyone to boo him. He seemed to enjoy his role as the villain, but he didn't start the fight. The Russian may have let his anger get the better of him on a couple of occasions prior to the exchange with the crowd, but that doesn't mean he was voluntarily signing up for a lifetime of hate.
Nobody likes to be jeered and derided, irrespective of whether they use it as a source of motivation or not. Think about it for a second; even if Djokovic and Medvedev do use hate as fuel, they do it from a place of pain. They may thrive when they have a point to prove, but that journey of point-proving begins with them feeling hurt and upset.
We live in a polarized world, where each set of like-minded people believes everyone who is different from them is either insane or immoral. Djokovic and Medvedev are certainly different from a large section of the tennis fraternity, or at least with what the tennis fraternity thinks is an acceptable personality for a player. And that makes them easy targets.
So what if we boo them at every turn? They should man up and take it on the chin, because they are not human anyway.
Kindness and empathy are easy concepts to talk about, but tough to practice in real life. A 10,000-strong crowd entering a tennis stadium doesn't want to be kind; instead, it wants to exert its muscle and subdue anyone it thinks isn't worthy of admiration.
This kind of mob mentality makes for sadistically entertaining exchanges, and at first glance even seems to make the sport more relatable to the outside world. But when a Grand Slam champion declares that he has "stopped dreaming" because of the crowd, maybe it is time for us to take a long and hard look at ourselves.
Disagreeing with someone's beliefs or disapproving of their past doesn't give us a right to set the dogs on them. A little kindness goes a long way, but are we willing to make an effort?