NEW YORK (Reuters) - Moments after Novak Djokovic reached the U.S. Open final on Friday and moved one step from clinching an elusive calendar Grand Slam, a group of fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium unfurled a banner with a photo of the smiling Serb.
"Like It or Not," the sign defiantly read. "Greatest of All Time."
Indeed, not everyone is happy that Djokovic has a chance on Sunday to capture his record 21st major title and break a three-way tie with Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. Throughout his seemingly inexorable march into history, he has remained third behind his longtime rivals in the hearts of many tennis fans.
During the two-week tennis major, the 34-year-old renewed his up-and-down relationship with the New York crowd, by turns imploring fans for more support and appearing frustrated when he failed to get it.
"Obviously, you always wish to have crowd behind you, but it's not always possible," he said after his first-round match, when the fans got behind his underdog opponent, Danish teenager Holger Rune.
It's a familiar position for Djokovic, who for all his accolades has not earned the unqualified adulation that Nadal, and, especially, Federer, enjoy. In conversations with dozens of fans during the Open, virtually all said they preferred either the Swiss or the Spaniard, even those who admire Djokovic's game.
"We're Djoker haters," said Brian King, 55, whose Federer hat and T-shirt – despite the fact that Federer is not playing in New York – left little doubt about his allegiance.
"When tennis players get stressed, you get to see their true personality," his wife, Rita King, added. "When he's stressed, he acts like a jerk."
That said, Djokovic heard his loudest cheers of the tournament during his thrilling five-set semi-final defeat of German Alexander Zverev, which featured dramatic rallies and superb shot-making.
Djokovic is in part a victim of timing. When he emerged as a commanding force by sweeping three majors in 2011, Federer and Nadal had won 25 Grand Slam titles between them and captivated a generation of fans with one epic battle after another.
"I think Nadal and Federer were legends for too long," said Kelly Martone, 51, who travelled from Virginia to attend the Open. "Most people don't want him to break their record."
Djokovic has gone from interloper to usurper, building a winning record against both men and threatening to surpass what once appeared an unassailable record of dominance.
A win in Sunday's final against 2019 runner-up Daniil Medvedev, the No. 2 seed, would also make him the first man to win all four majors in a calendar year since Rod Laver in 1969.
Some fans said they found Djokovic's occasionally aggressive behavior distasteful – his bellows on the court, his self-confidence and fits of temper.
Djokovic has had his share of self-inflicted wounds. Last year, he organised a charity exhibition tour in the Balkans that drew criticism when he and several players contracted the coronavirus. He has declined to say whether he has been vaccinated, emphasising that it should be a "personal choice" rather than compulsory.
He was disqualified from last year's U.S. Open after angrily slamming a ball and accidentally striking a line judge. This summer, he flung a racket into the stands at the Olympics while crashing out of the bronze medal match.
"He's the most alienating of the Big Three," said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing analyst at Pinnacle Advertising.
"Some still resent him 'barging in' on the Federer-Nadal rivalry, some find his hot temper off-putting and many can't abide by his anti-vaxxer stance."
Djokovic lags well behind Federer in endorsements; over a 12-month period, according to a Forbes analysis last month, he earned $30 million off the court to Federer's $90.6 million, though he was ahead of Nadal's $23 million.
Victory on Sunday could be worth an additional $10 million a year, on top of the $2.5 million in prize money, Dorfman estimated.
Of course, Djokovic has plenty of fans, especially in his native Serbia, where thousands gave him a rapturous welcome in July after he won Wimbledon.
The Novak Djokovic Foundation has raised millions of dollars to support early childhood education, mostly in Serbia, and he and his wife pledged 1 million euros to help the country buy medical equipment to fight COVID-19 last year.
Many of Djokovic's detractors among fans acknowledged his brilliance as a player, and some said they were rooting for history to be made.
"Even though he's not my favorite player, I want to see him win," said Pia Hyvonen, who has attended the Open for years. "He's a great player. You can't take that away from him."
Victory on Sunday could also afford Djokovic the opportunity to reshape his image, said Victor Matheson, a professor at College of the Holy Cross and an expert on sports economics.
"If he's the GOAT in tennis, maybe he'll get some more of those mainstream commercials where you get to act fun and goofy and people like you," he said, noting how former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning's humorous ad appearances helped change his public perception.
Early in his career, Djokovic showed a playful side, doing impressions of other players to the delight of the crowd.
Djokovic was asked this week what he wanted people most to see in him beyond his numbers and said he hopes to leave behind a legacy of a good human being.
"For me, those things are more important than results," he said. "But you can't have everyone liking you."
(Reporting by Joseph Ax and Rory Carroll, editing by Ed Osmond)