Tennis is a game of precision.
Take a serve. The best players in the world can hit a small yellow ball and make it travel 130 miles per hour to a spot the size of a matchbook in the ad court. Or return it such that the ball skims a two-inch line for a winner.
Novak Djokovic may not have deliberately aimed at the linesperson behind him when he whipped the ball back, but that’s hardly an excuse. The Serbian player has made a career of knowing the power that a tennis ball can have on clay, grass and hardcourts. So the effect that that ball can have when it goes from the face of his racket to a human throat should not have been surprising.
Cause meets effect. He had to be disqualified.
Even Djokovic understood.
“This whole situation has left me really sad and empty,” he wrote on his Instagram page. “I checked on the linesperson and the tournament told me that thank God she is feeling ok. I’m extremely sorry to have caused her such stress. So unintended. So wrong.”
Would this have possibly happened in a normal year, where Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were waiting for him deeper in the draw instead of opting out of the U.S. Open in a sports year hollowed out by the coronavirus? Where the resulting fractures put the Open in the middle of a three-Slam season? Where a New York state, ravaged by the virus, didn’t require strict adherence to the odd concept of a Tier I bubble?
There is a routine to the tennis calendar, but that rhythm has been disrupted. It also has allowed chaotic elements to creep in like the allegorical storms caused by a butterfly’s wings. If you change one thing, and then another, the breakdown of order and discipline can lead to unexpected places.
Like yesterday in Flushing, where an irresponsible flick of Djokovic’s racket after a lost point sent a linesperson crumbling to the court.
Djokovic, ranked No. 1 in the world and winner of 17 Grand Slam titles, has tried to step into a leadership role that his excellence on the court provides. After the pandemic, he put together a series of events near his home and called it the Adria Tour. It was meant to prove the concept of live events in the wake of the coronavirus’s devastating impact on Europe. Instead, it prompted an outbreak.
Photos emerged of tour participants at nightclubs and clasping hands post-match at the net. It was all stupidly done, completely overlooking life as it now is compared to how it once was. How we want it to be. Djokovic, Grigor Dimitrov, Borna Coric and Viktor Troicki (seen in photo below) all tested positive.
“I know that the intentions were right and correct,” Djokovic told the New York Times in the lead up to the U.S. Open, “And if I had the chance to do the Adria Tour again, I would do it again.”
Further denting his leadership credentials, Djokovic expressed reluctance to take a potential coronavirus vaccine if required for ATP Tour players.
This is all happening as Djokovic and Vasek Pospisil are planning a breakaway men’s players association, an idea that picked up steam after earlier in the pandemic there was discussion of merging the men’s and women’s tour to offset losses. There are still men in tennis who resent the idea that women earn the same paycheck for Grand Slam wins. So the new player’s club? No girls allowed.
Big picture, this has not been Djokovic’s year.
This U.S. Open and its lack of star power was like being spotted half-a-field closer to the goal for someone with Djokovic’s abilities. But these missteps have been of his own making, his inability to capitalize on a role that he has earned through his play.
“As for the disqualification,” Djokovic said, “I need to go back within and work on my disappointment and turn this all into a lesson for my growth and evolution as a player and human being.”
It was not angry, or defensive, unlike many who might find themselves in a similar situation. At the end, Djokovic had found the right approach.