Novak Djokovic has secured a place among the Grand Slam greats, but his sometimes brooding character means he has never acquired the affectionate following of squeaky-clean rival Roger Federer or bulldozing Spaniard Rafael Nadal, the only other men to have won more singles Majors than the Serb.
The 33-year-old world No 1 has been criticised aplenty in 2020 for his off-field actions but in New York there was a low-point on court after he was disqualified from the US Open on Sunday for accidentally striking a female line judge with a ball.
It made Djokovic one of a handful of players to be defaulted from the men’s singles tournament of a Grand Slam since John McEnroe was infamously tossed from the Australian Open in 1990.
Djokovic said he was “extremely sorry” but the incident marked another low point in a roller-coaster 2020 for the Serb who courted controversy with his Adria Tour event which resulted in several players – including himself – becoming infected with Covid-19.
Now, Djokovic’s former coach Boris Becker has written in a column for the Daily Mail, making a point that he saw this coming.
“When I was working in his coaching team. I was in the player box during that incident with the racket-throwing at the 2016 French Open when, accidentally, he nearly connected with a line judge,” wrote Becker.
Becker added: “We spoke afterwards about it, because that was a narrow escape. I know what the pressure is like in a big match and was not always Mr Nice Guy as a player. I said to him you can scream as much as you like, break your racket, but don’t throw things or hit the ball away. I was worried something like this might happen.”
And it has. Perhaps Djokovic took too much on. The talk around the new player’s organisation, the Benoit Paire case (when the Serb offered to speak to the state governor) and the absence of his long-time main coach Marian Vajda may all have been contributing factors.
“If you ask Novak Djokovic in 10 years’ time for the worst thing he experienced on a tennis court it will surely be disqualification at the 2020 US Open,” wrote Becker. “That is why he will have been feeling both embarrassed and frustrated by the events of the fourth round as they start to sink in. The fines will be expensive but other aspects to it will hurt him more.”
And one of those aspects will be how the incident will serve to further strengthen people’s growing perception of a player. In a way, his role as a pantomime villain seems destined to leave him typecast.
But Becker feels that Djokovic is not as bad as people make him out to be.
“Some of Novak’s biggest strengths can be weaknesses. He is an emotional player with a streetfighter mentality, it is this kind of fire which has helped him win 17 Grand Slam titles,” wrote Becker, adding that the Serb’s humility is admirable.
But the German also feels that Djokovic wants to be liked unilaterally, just as Nadal and Federer are, and the fact that he isn’t, does weigh on him.
“He is a people person and wants to be appreciated like that. He is playing in the era of two tennis gods in Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer and is a bit of a gate-crasher. I think it does bother him that he is not as generally popular as they are.”
For now, Djokovic has flown back to Europe and will be trying to put the incident behind him so that he can focus on the upcoming French Open. It won’t be easy but if he wants to win, he’ll have to. More often than not, the Serb finds a way on court.
With inputs from AFP