Vol­canic Djokovic pays price for one erup­tion too many

Ser­bian has pre­vi­ous for un­seemly out­bursts and lat­est in­dis­cre­tion will only add to his rather che­quered rep­u­ta­tion

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport | Tennis - By Si­mon Briggs ten­nis Cor­re­spon­dent

As one wag ob­served, it was ironic that – in the first grand-slam tour­na­ment ever played in an empty sta­dium – No­vak Djokovic should have been de­faulted for hit­ting some­one with a ten­nis ball.

Djokovic can­not claim that he has not been warned. In­deed, af­ter a match at the O2 Arena in 2016, a Bri­tish re­porter ques­tioned him closely about his habit of lash­ing out with racket or ball when he was frus­trated, and asked whether he was con­cerned that it might cost him dearly in the fu­ture.

The con­ver­sa­tion hap­pened shortly af­ter Djokovic – who had dropped the first set that night to Aus­tria’s Do­minic Thiem – had slammed a ball fu­ri­ously to­wards his own sup­port staff in his player box.

The ball skimmed just over his coaches’ heads and, given how tightly packed the sta­dium was, he was hugely for­tu­nate that it bounced back off the few seats that were kept empty in that area.

Dur­ing the press con­fer­ence that fol­lowed, Djokovic re­sponded to an in­quiry about whether such be­hav­iour might cost him one day by say­ing: “You guys are un­be­liev­able. You’re al­ways pick­ing these kind of things.”

The re­porter replied: “But if you keep do­ing these things…” be­fore Djokovic cut him off. “I keep do­ing these things? Why don’t I get sus­pended then?”

When asked what might have hap­pened if the ball had hit a spec­ta­tor, he added: “It could have snowed in O2 Arena as well, but it didn’t. It’s not an is­sue for me. It’s not the first time I did it.”

This much was true. Only six months ear­lier, at the French Open, Djokovic had been roundly booed by the Roland Gar­ros faith­ful af­ter hurl­ing his racket to­wards the back­board dur­ing his quar­ter­fi­nal against To­mas Berdych. The mo­tion was un­can­nily sim­i­lar to the one he used last night, in that both times he was fac­ing for­ward and swung be­hind him­self with­out look­ing – once strik­ing the ball and the other time throw­ing the racket.

For­tu­nately, the French Open lines­man was watch­ing him, and shim­mied neatly out of the way, oth­er­wise that of­fi­cial would prob­a­bly have ended up in an even worse state than the un­for­tu­nate lineswoman who found her­self gasp­ing for breath last night af­ter be­ing smacked in the throat by a fast-mov­ing ten­nis ball.

At this event, too, Djokovic was asked about his near-miss, and re­sponded sar­cas­ti­cally. To a ques­tion about what he was try­ing to do, and whether he was aware how close he could have come to a de­fault, Djokovic replied: “It’s ob­vi­ous what I tried to do. I threw a racket on the ground and it slipped and al­most hit the line um­pire. I was lucky there. That’s all.”

The re­porter fol­lowed up by ask­ing: “You’re lucky he moved, weren’t you?” To which Djokovic replied: “Yeah, I’m lucky. Great.”

Per­haps these oc­ca­sional erup­tions are the in­evitable out­come of Djokovic’s vol­canic in­ten­sity. He plays like a man with hot lava boil­ing away in­side him, and some­times that fire shows it­self in un­flat­ter­ing ways.

We could also bring up the nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions when he has ap­par­ently ex­pe­ri­enced some kind of loss of bal­ance, or phys­i­cal cri­sis, in the mid­dle of a match when he has oth­er­wise per­formed bril­liantly.

The most no­to­ri­ous in­stance of this lat­ter syn­drome, for Bri­tish fans, dates back to the 2015 Aus­tralian Open fi­nal, when Andy Mur­ray ad­mit­ted that he had lost his con­cen­tra­tion at the sight of Djokovic limp­ing around and stretch­ing out his legs early in the third set.

One way or an­other, he has made him­self the new Jimmy Con­nors

Asked af­ter the match if Djokovic had been play-act­ing the symp­toms of cramp, Mur­ray replied: “I don’t know. I would hope that wouldn’t be the case. But, yeah, if it was cramp, that’s a tough thing to re­cover from and play as well as he did at the end.”

Djokovic has an un­bend­ing will to win: that much is un­con­testable. He also tends to be fol­lowed around by con­tro­versy.

One way or an­other, he has made him­self the new Jimmy Con­nors – the agent provo­ca­teur whom so many ten­nis fans see as the vil­lain of the piece.

You only have to look back at the re­cent fi­nals that Djokovic has shared with Roger Fed­erer in New York and at Wim­ble­don to hear the al­most em­bar­rass­ing dis­par­ity in the way the crowd re­sponds to the two play­ers.

And that was be­fore his cat­a­strophic 2020, which has wit­nessed him query­ing the ne­ces­sity of a po­ten­tial Covid-19 vac­ci­na­tion, host­ing the ill-fated Adria Tour, launch­ing a play­ers’ as­so­ci­a­tion at the most in­sen­si­tive time and lam­bast­ing the As­so­ci­a­tion of Ten­nis Pro­fes­sion­als for the way they han­dled the Black Lives Mat­ter protests that caused the sus­pen­sion of play for 24 hours.

Even his im­me­di­ate exit from the Bil­lie Jean King Ten­nis Cen­tre yes­ter­day – with­out talk­ing to the press – was un­be­com­ing for a world No 1, in the eyes of both Ama­zon Prime stu­dio pun­dits Greg Rused­ski and Tim Hen­man.

So when Djokovic re­turns to Roland Gar­ros in a cou­ple of weeks, he may be glad if there are no fans in the grounds to jeer him.

Flash­point: No­vak Djokovic (above) tries to help a lineswoman af­ter hit­ting her with a ball in the throat; (cen­tre top and be­low) ar­gu­ing his case to the of­fi­cials be­fore ac­cept­ing his fate (far right), hav­ing been dis­qual­i­fied from the US Open

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