Tennis Prose



The Novak Djokovic Jack Dempsey Parallel

Jack Dempsey oil painting by LeRoy Neiman.

The similarities and parallels of tennis and boxing have been discussed often. Here’s another angle which connects Novak Djokovic to former Heavyweight Champion of the world Jack Dempsey.

Jack Dempsey, the former World Heavyweight Champion who won the title by knocking out Jess Willard in Toledo, Ohio in 1919, did not have a totally positive media image during his reign as champion and he was not accepted by the public until the very end of his career. The media mischaracterized him as a “draft dodger” which severely damaged his image and manipulated public opinion against Dempsey.

Dempsey lost the title to Gene Tunney, all ten rounds of the fight in Philadelphia in an outdoor stadium in 1926. In the ring after Jack fought through the pain and threw an arm around his conqueror, “Great fight Gene, you won.”

It was raining in the stadium. In the downpour, some ringside observers called Jack’s name from the crowd. One guy yelled, “You’ll always be the champion! You’re our champion forever!” Forty-five years later in the “Jack Dempsey: A Flame Of Pure Fire” biography by Roger Kahn, Kahn recalled Jack Dempsey telling him, blinking away tears, “I want you to get to the people that losing was the making of me.” 

Forty-five years later the memories of the crowd cheering and supporting him provoked a tear of joy from Jack Dempsey.

Jack Dempsey lost the rematch vs Gene Tunney by decision in Chicago and his career was over. He actually became more popular and beloved after his boxing career, operating a successful restaurant in New York City for decades.

Jack Dempsey and Novak Djokovic have something in common. Novak Djokovic came up short in his quest to win the Grand Slam and break the 20-20-20 record when he lost the US Open final to Daniil Medvedev but at the end of the match, the US Open crowd cheered and chanted Novak’s name, with an emphatic energy he had never experienced before. The moment was so moving that Djokovic began to weep uncontrollably, experiencing new emotions of acceptance and approval and gratitude he never felt before.

Like Jack Dempsey, Novak Djokovic finally won over the crowd after one of the most painful, disappointing, frustrating defeats in the later stages of his illustrious career.

Surely, what happened in Ashe Stadium on Sunday will be a defining moment of Novak Djokovic, not much unlike how the public’s view of Jack Dempsey was refined and corrected by time and delayed appreciation when he lost the Heavyweight championship of the world to Gene Tunney.

My Biofile interview with Jack Dempsey

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  • catherine · September 14, 2021 at 1:39 pm

    Scoop – interesting boxing/tennis comparison. Re crowds, behaviour and influence, I caught this quote from Fernandez after her USO defeat:

    “One thing that really surprised me was that the more that I’m more outgoing on court and that I try to get the crowd involved, the more I’m playing well,” Fernandez said. “Usually when I was younger, I’d try to be as calm as possible, just like Federer. I’m glad that I’ve discovered that of myself, that I play a lot better when I’m more outgoing and when I’m using the crowd to my advantage.”

    Is it better to be like Federer, above it all, or try to manipulate crowds and get them on your side ? I can see banana skins ahead there. Crowds can be fickle. Jimmy Connors was a master of crowd control but it could turn nasty. Let’s hope Leylah manages to keep a balance.

  • Scoop Malinowski · September 14, 2021 at 1:49 pm

    Catherine, makes you wonder how much better Federer would have played had he had more emotional adrenaline and an extroverted, outgoing personality on the court, he was more supressed and reserved and introverted, like a mad scientist or genius at work. Very interesting insights shared by young Leylah. Emotional adrenaline is an element of pro tennis which has been mentioned around here from time to time 🙂 Thanks for sharing those quotes. Federer with emotional adrenaline and more outgoing personality on court = 30 majors. 🙂

  • Don C. Berry · September 14, 2021 at 7:49 pm

    Wonderful piece, Scoop. As a long-time boxing and tennis fan, I found your comparison (parallel if you will) fascinating and spot on.
    After this tourney I have a different perspective about Nole as well. Have always admired and acknowledged his talent, but his personality always rubbed me wrong.
    He’s a champion, for sure, but maybe now he can continue to show the world his more composed, vulnerable side. His humanity.
    Great article. My father talked about Dempsey a lot and said the cheesecake at Jack Dempsey’s was the best. I wish it had still been open when I moved to Manhattan in the late ‘70s. I live the Brill Building, where Jack’s place was located.

  • Scoop Malinowski · September 14, 2021 at 7:54 pm

    Don C. Berry. This US Open might have won Djokovic more respect and appreciation than any of his Grand Slam titles. To show the grace and class he showed in what should have been his crowning, defining career moment which turned into a nightmare because of how incredibly well Medvedev played – proved to everyone even his worst critics, what a marvel of a champion Djokovic is. He is the greatest. Jack Dempsey, though I only met his wife Deanna a couple of times and only read about Jack and heard from boxing people who knew him, is and always will be one of my favorite sportsman. I know for a fact he is the all time favorite of Mike Tyson, Jack’s legend had a major influence on young Mike. LeRoy Neiman told me Mike would ask him what Jack would talk about. His wife told me how she and Jack first met, which I included in his Biofile linked to the article. INcredible story.

  • Jasminka · September 14, 2021 at 8:53 pm

    I love it!!!Yes Novak didn’t deserve that hate for many years,but I think Novak won much more that night from Medvedev ,Medvedev won trophy but Nole won thousands heart….he worked so hard ,he come from not rich family,his parents sold everything, even take money from “mafia” with big interest to give Nole to play ,he practice even when NATO bombed our country .Today he is Serbian pride,he helping a lot of children,church,when is flood he gives money,where is any natural disaster he gives money,not everyone know at the pandemic time he gives up from part of his money price to gives young players to suport him,it’s not without reason players choose him to represent them all.One day in Serbian newspaper we saw picture Novak with old farmer picking up pateto with his hands helping old farmer,his mom told news they wanted go to vocation mountain Zlatibor where Nole start playing like very litlle boy, Nole left first and when his parents come they couldn’t find him they called him ask him where he is and he told them he helping this old farmer to pick up patetos ,than he called everyone to come and help this old farmer….that is Nole,he deserve only live and respect!!!

  • Scoop Malinowski · September 14, 2021 at 9:01 pm

    Thanks for the insights Jasminka. There is so much to the Djokovic career story that the media does not know about, they only know a fraction. If he had to sell a part of his career for early financial support, it’s a normal thing, so many unwealthy juniors have to borrow money and pay it back late. Just recently a prominent name pro asked me to help him get $50,000 for the next year and he would pay the investor half of all prize money. I know Rublev had to pay back investors from his junior days. So many do. The pressure for these players to succeed and win is something nobody can even attempt to imagine. When they crack up on court, it’s understandable and acceptable and part of the sport. When the new york slimes does attack articles targeting Djokovic’s bad moments or mistakes it almost motivates one to slap the reporter in the face. Credit to Djokovic for rolling with the punches from the cheap shot media and still reaching the top of the mountain and staying there.

  • Scoop Malinowski · September 15, 2021 at 7:47 pm

    More info about Jack Dempsey from Don Majeski:
    Jack Dempsey was voted :
    “The Greatest Boxer of the First Half of the 20th Century” and his 1923 ,
    “Fight of the Century – against Luis Firpo- “The Most Memorable Sports Event of the First Half of the 20th Century” by the Associated Press- the world’s most wide ranging news agency. Today few talk about him among the greatest boxers of all time – which he definitely was.
    He was the single most influential boxer in the history of the business of boxing and its impact on society – he popularized and legitimized the sport as no one else before or since :
    first world title bout broadcast on electronic media, First million dollar gate, multi million dollar gate , hundred thousand attendance.
    Popularity lead to the creation of the NBA, NYSAC and BBB of C , The Ring magazine
    First athlete to earn a million dollars .
    First boxer elected to The Ring Hall of Fame (1954) in the Modern category.



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