Mailbag: The Irony of Novak Djokovic

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Let’s start with a catch-all.

For a guy who hasn’t played a match since February—and hasn’t lost a match in 2020—it’s been a busy spring for Novak Djokovic. He’s tallied some breathtaking winners and made ghastly unforced errors. He’s gone deep with my pal, Graham Bensinger. (Everyone should watch this.) He’s been all over social media. Inasmuch as you guys form a tennis focus group, Djokovic has been the subject of more mail during COVID-19 than when there’s been actual tennis. And, on balance, it has not been positive. Peter Deutch, of Long Island City, N.Y., was fairly representative when he asked last week why, for such an intelligent guy, does Djokovic so often fail to get it?

It strikes me there is a glaring irony to Djokovic. When he plays tennis, he is so balanced, so steady and impeccably positioned. When he doesn’t play tennis, he sure spends a lot of time in awkward and difficult spots, often his own doing. Let’s be clear, there are unmistakable instances of virtue. He showed more leadership and compassion than any tennis administrator, in pushing for a player-driven relief fund.

Then a few days later he frittered away good will with his irresponsible position on vaccines and regrettable choice of words, especially during a global pandemic. He has used his social media platform to showcase good and dance with his wife; he has used social media to give credence to a supplement peddler and espouse a “theory” that positive energy impacts water quality. In tennis terms: he breaks a lot, and he gives back a lot of breaks.

Another irony: during his blazingly candid No Challenges Remaining interview last spring, Nick Kyrgios was terribly uncharitable describing Djokovic. But you could argue, they are similar in some way. Both—to their credit—decline to play it safe and present a polished, sanitized, bland, politically un-daring image. This can create unnecessary controversy and crises. This can leave the tennis establishment and the PR machinery—and their own fans—flatfooted. But you could argue there’s a certain integrity to speaking openly.

Finally: It’s a pandemic. None of us has been here before. Who among us is living their best life right now? Far as I’m concerned, everyone gets a bit of extra latitude these days.

Happy should-be-French-Open Week….some housekeeping:

• Our most recent podcast guest, Chase Bartlett, a recent college tennis. Sadly this will only accelerate. (Hang in there, Victoria Dixon.)

• This week’s SI podcast guest: Madison Keys comes on to talk about the overlap between kindness and competition.

• Tennis Channel, to Brad Gilbert’s delight, is continuing to distinguish itself with live programming. For the next two weeks, in lieu of the French Open, it will have live shows starting at 8 p.m. ET.

• Pro tennis—and the last two major champs—are heading to Charleston in June.

• A few of you asked about last week’s 60 Minutes piece. Here it is.

• I usually don’t do plugs, but I love this place and these are extraordinary times. Total Tennis is back in business.

While waiting to see which stars commit to playing the 2020 U.S. Open…..


Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

Hey Jon. I was listening to Andy Roddick on a tennis podcast lately and the hosts (not Roddick) said that “tennis journalists are almost entirely terrible.” Do you agree with that? Are they really that bad?
Jeff, Brooklyn

• I hope that is not true. If so, that would be really shabby and uncool and, above all, blazingly wrong. (If someone wants to find Andy Roddick’s recent podcasts we can probably refute or confirm.) But regardless, I’ll say this:

a) Times are hard enough for members of the media. Existentially and financially. We don’t need to eat our own. We don’t even need to disparage our own.

b) Louisa Thomas, Chris Clarey, Simon Briggs, Tumaini Carayol, Courtney Nguyen, Ben Rothenberg, Scott Price, Pete Bodo, Tom Perrotta, Joe Drucker, Howard Fendrich, David Law, Reem Abulleil. Steve Flink, Giri Nathan, Steve Tignor, Tom Tebbutt, Jamie Lisanti, Kurt Streeter, Howard Bryant….I can keep going. Stop me when I get to a terrible journalist. Or even one you wouldn’t be proud to call a colleague. (And these are just the English-speakers….) For all the sport’s problems, I would submit that incompetence-in-the press-room is not a concern. Quite the contrary. There is, however, a larger question….

c) What is the tennis media? There was a time when most major newspapers had a reporter devoted to tennis. That’s obviously no longer the case. Today a lot of the coverage and news and opinion comes from digital sources, from bloggers, from freelancers or, frankly, from people like me that love the sport and pop in as often as their time/other obligations/assignments/finances permit.

d) Tied to that, the newspapers that have no dedicated tennis writers have to improvise. And this is where some of the problems arise. The press conference context doesn’t distinguish between, say, the New York Times and the tabloids, the knowledgeable writer and the local guy who got a credential. So you have legitimate questions followed by someone confusing “rally” with “volley,” or someone asking Serena when she is retiring; or someone kicking off a Wimbledon session by asking Kyrgios about his ventures to the pub. And the whole press room pays the price. I’ve landed here: the press conference—YouTube shame waiting to happen—is Churchill on democracy. The worst form imaginable. Except for all the alternatives.

e) We often say one of tennis’s great virtues—and one of its complications—is its international nature. Global village versus tower of Babel and all. At one of the first majors I covered, the 2000 French Open, I was surprised that when Gustavo Kuerten won, he was greeted by applause in the press room and Brazilian media members approached him for photos and autographs. But different cultures and countries have different media standards. I wonder if some of the “terrible” journalists are simply playing by different rules.

What did you think of The Last Dance documentary?

• Where to begin? I loved it. I didn’t love it all. It was thoroughly entertaining. There was also—as many have pointed out—something really fraught (and non-journalistic) about granting “final cut” to a subject. It wasn’t simply that Jordan and his people signed off on every episode. It’s that assertions went unchallenged, chapters went untold, sequencing inevitably gave Jordan the last word. Lots of this has been picked apart already by others. Gary Payton DID—like, empirically—defend Jordan capably, in the 1996 Finals. Why was this mocked? Jordan’s relationship with his father was such a theme; why was Jordan’s own fatherhood scarcely discussed? (His kids made a cameo to comment on, of all things, the inhospitality of the Utah Jazz fans.)

One issue I haven’t seen discussed: Anyone know why Jordan took No. 23? Because his older brother, Larry, wore 45 in high school and Michael aspired to be half as good. Larry, however, stopped growing at 5’8” and never made the NBA. (James Jordan, Michael’s dad, was listed at 5’6”.) That as a backdrop, you wonder how MJ could have picked on Jerry Krause for being small in stature. That seems, at a bare minimum, deeply insensitive. (Cheap shot alert: why, it’s almost like having a family history of diabetes, but then seeking to profit off of an eponymous candy brand.) A conventional documentary might have pushed Jordan on these points and others.

Yet did I watch all 10 hours? You’re damn right I did. And I would watch another 10 if they were available. Here’s a tennis tie-in: If you could make The Last Dance for tennis, what would you pick? Here’s my vote: Venus and Serena at the 2017 Australian Open. Reaching a final deep in their 30s. With Serena, recently married and pregnant (a fact of which we now know Venus was aware). The week Trump was inaugurated.

Hi Jon, I've been watching a number of the Wimbledon classic matches on Tennis Channel and have noticed the same man sitting in the player's box for what is now almost two decades. He was there when Federer beat Sampras in 2001; and I've noticed him pretty much every time Federer plays. He always dresses in black (including hat) with a bolo tie. He never seems to be with anyone, and he always sits in the same spot. Any idea who he is?
Janice L.

• Thanks to Wimbledon librarian Robert McNicol:

“The man in question is David Spearing. He’s the Steward who looks after the players’ box. I think he’s been doing it for about 40 years. He’s very well known for his hat. We have his original hat in the Museum! I think he lives in Dubai most of the year but comes over every year for The Championships.”

Who had the best career winning percentage in clay-court finals? Nope! Not Nadal. Not a trick question either, i.e., the No. 1 player isn't from 1920, or didn't have a record of 1-0. (Although I'm sure there are some of those.) Say 10 wins or more, in the open era.
Don Rockwell, SD

• I had to look this up. The answer is Guga, Gustavo Kuerten. Nadal is 59-8 (88.06%). The original King of Clay was 40-5 (88.89%). Don notes: See Post 8 for an amazing video of him.

Long time reader of the Mailbag for many years. Hope you are keeping well and safe. I love watching the "Tennis United" show. I feel Vasek Pospisil and Bethanie Mattek-Sands are excellent and fun hosts. I am surprised the show is not getting the kind of views I would expect, considering that tennis is a global game. It is a lot of fun to see the stars as normal people. It would be nice if you could also pitch it when you get the chance...
George Attokaran, Chennai, India

• Happy to pitch it. You can watch it here:

Jon, love this build-the-best-without-the-best concept. Please consider the second serve of Sam Stosur. A wicked kicker.
—Scott G.

• Love “wicked kicker.” Sounds like the name of a Boston-based band. And who among us doesn’t love Sam Stosur’s kick serve?

Shots, Miscellany

World TeamTennis is coming to West Virginia (and good to see Marc Stein in tennis).

• Four Daughters, a development and production company dedicated to telling stories that celebrate inclusion, has launched with its first feature project, THE MATCH. Based on the book by Bruce Schoenfeld (HarperCollins), THE MATCH is inspired by the true story of two remarkable women, Althea Gibson and Angela Buxton. Francesca Gregorini (Killing Eve, The Truth About Emanuel, Tanner Hall) is attached to direct, and Julie Snyder (Tanner Hall, Porto, Above Suspicion) will produce.

RIP Ashley Cooper.