The two famous people all over our recent front pages could not have more different public personas: Novak Djokovic is one of the greatest tennis players of all time, but arguably the most unloved and polarising of world-renowned sports stars; Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, who recently released portraits for her birthday, is the most sphinx-like globally famous 40-year-old in public life. The less she says, the more we approve, even admire. Before researching her, I was unaware of a single cause she believes in – other than the monarchy, of course.
Why as a nation do we so admire people for keeping quiet or being beige? The contrast with their respective contemporaries is stark. Like Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have 20 Grand Slam and more than 80 ATP titles between them. All are recognisable by their first name. Like Novak, Roger and Rafa have spent years as world No 1s. But unlike Novak, the uncontroversial Roger and Rafa are almost universally adored. Andy Murray, once mentioned in the same breath as part of a “Big Four”, is also opinionated and therefore relatively less popular, because he polarises. Lewis Hamilton, Cristiano Ronaldo and Tyson Fury might fall into the same category.
With Djokovic, this is so much the case that some are reluctant to accept the increasing evidence that the Serb is the greatest player of all time. Having won in Australia nine times already, it is obvious why he is so keen to compete there. He has a ruthless determination to be the greatest of all time. Perhaps that single-mindedness scares us? Or perhaps we have an objective perspective: that this should not override the need to do the right thing about Covid restrictions that apply to the rest of us.
It would be unfair on Kate, the “reliable royal”, to say that she never speaks about issues. She has been an advocate of early education, art and music – most recently playing the piano in public at Christmas with the singer Tom Walker. But Kate always adopts the line we would expect. She has never gone out on a limb, like Diana on HIV/Aids or Prince Charles on the environment. Therefore, there has been little controversy about her in the 15-plus years she has been in the public eye. For instance, when she was accused by Meghan in that Oprah interview of making her cry in a row over flower girl dresses, Kate did not respond. She is of the royal “old school”, like the Queen: never complain, never explain. The contrast with Meghan, Harry and Andrew could not be more stark.
It’s complicated: do we want our sportspeople, royals or indeed any global celebrity to have opinions or speak beyond their immediate field of interest? What are a royal’s limits in that regard? Or even a sportsperson’s? Look at the trolling Gary Lineker receives whenever he speaks beyond sport. Then look at the good Marcus Rashford has done by daring to. Individuals’ global platforms can surely be used to powerfully positive effect? In order to do so, is it not inevitable they have to risk a little controversy some of the time? The trouble is the likes of Djokovic are not as “safe” in their opinions as Kate.
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