Life has come full circle for Novak Djokovic. By getting defaulted from the US Open, the World No. 1 lost a title that was his for the taking. Just like Roger Federer at Wimbledon 2019, when Federer squandered two match points against, well, Djokovic.
At that time, people said of Federer, “How could he?” How could such a great player, a mere one stroke from victory, on his own serve, let it slip? Many of them were Djokovic fans. They mocked Federer as they savoured their man’s lucky escape.
And now, just about a year later, the same question is being asked of Djokovic. “How could he?” How could such an experienced player do something so stupid, if not intentional, as smack a ball in disgust towards a linesperson, despite being aware of the rules and risks? How could an otherwise charming player, who invites ballkids to sit with him during rain breaks, do something so careless?
We are not naïve. We know people have contradictions and mistakes happen. But the thing is, Djokovic’s costly swipe at the ball wasn’t his first demonstration of anger in the match. Moments earlier, he had slammed one hard in the sideboards. At that moment, he could have warned himself. “Calm down, if someone gets hit, you could be kicked out of the tournament.” Curse, scream, break your racquet. But don’t do anything where the racquet or ball hit another person. The rules are clear about that.
And now Djokovic, his team and admirers are feeling what the Federer camp felt after last year’s Wimbledon – the agony of losing a major title when it was almost a done deal.
It’s been a season of blunders and stress for Djokovic. First, he expressed opposition to the idea of mandatory COVID vaccination by the tennis body, which was seen as insensitive in some quarters. Then in June, he organised an ill-advised exhibition tournament named Adria Tour in Croatia. Spectators packed the stands. Players hugged and danced at a party and played basketball with no distancing. Djokovic’s intentions were noble. He wanted to do something good for players and the public during the bleak days of the coronavirus. But it proved to be a disaster. Several people, including Djokovic and his wife Jelena, tested positive for the virus. Djokovic was widely criticized and spent precious time and energy explaining his actions and apologizing.
But then he took the brave call of travelling to the US for the US Open, never hiding his motivation to dislodge Federer from the tennis peak (Federer has 20 Grand Slams, Nadal 19 and Djokovic 17). When Djokovic won the Cincinnati Masters in the run-up to the US Open, the Adria Tour fiasco seemed behind him and he seemed on course for Major No. 18.
Djokovic, however, once again made a surprising decision to announce, right in the middle of a major tournament, that he was forming a new players association. Top players do not usually take on tiring parallel responsibilities during big tournaments, let alone talk about them. Unlike the Adria Tour, there was nothing objectionable about the players association. But Djokovic had to answer questions about it during press conferences, at a time when he needed to focus solely on the US Open. Finally came the moment of madness on Sunday when his absently slapped ball, to his absolute horror, hit a lineswoman.
Most temperamental of the Big 3, also the funniest
There is little to separate Federer, Nadal and Djokovic in terms of achievements. But Djokovic can be the most entertaining as well as the most temperamental of the elite trio. His impersonations of players and practical jokes are hilarious. At the same time, despite his greatness and success, his calm seems brittle. Things get to him more than they do to Federer or Nadal, and the hitherto invulnerable game starts to unravel. At the US Open, he was at times bellowing in anger even when he was winning.
Djokovic’s training, regimen and diet are painstakingly drawn from modern science as well as alternative medicine. Among other things, he believes a person’s emotions can change the molecular structure of the water he or she drinks. Djokovic also famously turned his career around by going gluten-free. At last year’s US Open, he carried an oxygen chamber to the grounds.
It takes a village to keep Novak Djokovic going on his grand mission to become the most successful tennis player ever. And it takes a few moments for all of it to fall to pieces. But at last, he and his fans will know that what happened to Federer at Wimbledon 2019 can happen to Djokovic too.