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Mailbag: The Olympic Twist to Novak Djokovic's Complicated Reputation

We need to talk about Novak Djokovic, so let’s get to it….

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

Jon, Novak Djokovic is an unbelievable player, and arguably the greatest ever, but after his childish tantrums at the Olympics, I can no longer support him. One too many times for me. What is your take on his bad temper?
—Kelly G., Louisville, KY

• Tons of traffic and chatter this week about Djokovic and another plot twist in his strange and maddening story….just in time for his Grand Slam attempt at the U.S. Open.

It scarcely merits mention that Djokjovic did not medal in Tokyo. And that was the least of his shortcomings. Seen through even the rosiest of glasses, his behavior was unbecoming a champion, unbecoming a leader, unbecoming the Olympics. On Twitter one of you asked for an honest discussion about Djokovic. I noted that this was a fool’s errand—all the more so on social media—but since when has that stopped us? Here are some thoughts.

novak-djokovic

So last week, I was sent this trailer for a forthcoming Richard Williams film starring Will Smith. My first thought: I hope this is an honest portrayal. Richard Williams is a life force; his feat of nurturing Venus and Serena and molding them into champions in every sense? It’s not merely indisputable, but forms the spine of perhaps the greatest sports story of our age. Were he on the ballot, I would vote Richard (and Oracene Price) into the Hall of Fame tomorrow. At the same time, he is an imperfect, even problematic figure. (The most cursory google search, including an entry last week, would reveal some reasons why.) In other words, he is human and complex. But a film that is sheer hagiography—and elides or ignores the messier chapters—will want for credibility. 

Which brings us to Djokovic. Leaving aside his tennis excellence, he is, redundantly, a flawed man. He is complicated. He lacks consistency. He is capable of unassailably awesome acts of kindness; and also indefensible lapses. Fine. The problem is that complexity and nuance is the enemy of the binary of sports...the binary of you-suck/you-rock of social media….the binary of hero/heel narratives. Like so much today, we’d be in a better spot if we could lop off the 10% Djokovic extremists on both poles, who take the binary positions and, tragically, shout loudest. We’re not going to solve anything here. But maybe if we come in from the margins and dismiss the absolutists, we’ll at least have a civil discussion about the most compelling figure in tennis today. So….

For the Djokovic-Force-of-Darkness army: Stop. Please. You’re free not to like the guy. You’re free to hope his quest for four Majors in 2021 is thwarted. But the hate is excessive. There’s just too much evidence to the contrary. Who was the first player to contact Naomi Osaka after her struggles at the French Open? Who has reached out to her consistently since? Who is chasing history while heading the PTPA, an organization—flawed, but ultimately necessary and righteous—that will, functionally, benefit the rank-and-file far more than the stars? I’ve seen this from afar and I’ve seen this up close. Characterizing Djokovic, out of hand, as this irredeemable villain is about as accurate as characterizing the Sackler family as museum benefactors. It just does not comport with the facts.

[Changoever….Okay, we swigged water, toweled off, and are back on court.]

For the Djokovic-can-do-no-wrong army: Stop. Please. If we’re going to have an honest discussion we need to acknowledge that his lapses are real, they are repeated, and they are ugly. These are not premeditated bad acts. These lapses are not core moral failures. But they are persistent and not imagined. The guy cannot get out of his own way.

Context is important, too. “Lots of players throw their rackets,” one of you wrote. Sure, but lots of players aren’t ranked No. 1, and position themselves as leaders. Rafael Nadal was right when he essentially said, This is not how champions are supposed to act; this is not an example to set; you're No. 1 in the world. Act like it and be better, dude

Which gives rise to more context. I’m reluctant to go here, but in service of an honest discussion: Roger Federer and Nadal don’t comport themselves like this. There are no “yeah, buts” or equivalences. They don’t get defaulted from Majors...and then, within a year, throw rackets into stands and smash rackets on netposts, as if they’ve learned nothing. They don’t hold superspreader events. They don’t—amid a pandemic and amid a water crisis—talk about positive energy cleaning water or take (what we will most charitably call) an ambiguous/ambivalent stance on vaccinations.

​​While they all may be tied with 20 majors, Djokovic has something that Federer and Nadal don’t. And I wonder if that doesn’t explain a great deal. While Federer and Nadal represent Switzerland and Spain, they are not the face of the country. They are not central to the national reputation of a country, with a complicated (that word again) past, effectively “founded” in 2006. We talk of athletes “treated like kings when they return home.” But Djokovic is literally treated like a king, already touted as a future political leader. (Djokovic’s parents foment this. “I think he is G-d’s Chosen One.”) In Hulu’s (excellent) WeWork documentary, the (excellent) Scott Galloway talks about the founder/CEO and has this great line, “If you tell a 30-year-old man he is Jesus Christ, he is inclined to believe you.” I wonder if that doesn’t explain part of Djokovic’s missteps.

All top athletes are cosseted and cocooned to some extent. Federer and Nadal and Serena, they ain’t getting TSA patdowns. But they are not being touted as presidents either. With his unique level of pressure and adulation, it’s pretty easy to see how Djokovic could become divorced from reality and consequence in a way his rivals are not.

All the more reason why he needs truth-tellers around him and why he needs to encourage pushback. If only someone tapped him on the shoulder or grabbed him by the lapels and said: “Yeah, maybe holding a mask-less event during a pandemic—even if it technically complies with local protocol—isn’t going to go over all that well.” Or: “Now that you have been defaulted from a major for a violent act in a fit of frustration, that cannot happen again.” Or: “Hey, pulling out of mixed doubles is really uncool—both to your partner and even to the other team that wins by default. Are you sure you can’t play?” 

Where does this leave us? Well, hopefully, we’ve dismissed the absolutists. Otherwise, people need to decide how much Djokovic’s screw-ups and “own goals” matter. For some, the answer is very little. “He who retires with the most Slams wins,” and they’ll dismiss or ignore any antisocial acts or racket chucks or embrace of junk science.

For others, comportment and sportsmanship and embrace of science and not violently abusing equipment counts significantly. Djokovic has, at a minimum, an image and perception problem. One that goes beyond social media and Federer/Nadal partisans.

But it’s a problem that has solutions. In keeping with our theme of complexity, reputations are malleable, perception isn’t fixed, most people are willing to accept a certain quotient of flaws in other people. He can still get this right. Or at least get this better. But the onus is largely on him and the people around him. You know how we talk about tennis players making unforced errors, spraying their shots, and then cleaning up their game?

One of the greatest moments in this year's Olympics—in ANY sport, mind you—had to have been Pablo Carreno Busta's emotional display after his match with Novak Djokovic...and it was for the Bronze medal!! You could tell how much his match with the world No. 1 meant to him, and his reaction after the match showed how hard he works and how much grace he conducts himself. He is a very, very good player and someone who juniors should not only admire, but also emulate. He shows that toughness will get you far, not only in tennis, but life in general. Carreno Busta will most likely never win a slam, but he definitely has a fan in me.
—Mike from Dallas

• Amen. Nothing not to like. I love stars. You love stars. We all love stars. But sports are nothing without the honest professionals. And when they do win and have their moments, it’s impossible not to feel like sports justice has been meted out. This was a lovely moment. 

Aside 1: Between Pablo Carreño Busta and Roberto Bautista Agut, say this about Nadal’s Spanish compatriots: They are doing some strong peloton work.

Aside 2: Props to the ITF press release over the weekend, headlined, “Life of Pablo.”

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Aside 3: You know when PCB won me over? At the 2019 Australian Open, he lost to Kei Nishikori and went nuts. When he calmed down he was not just apologetic but genuinely embarrassed for himself. You felt like saying to him, “We’re all good here. Stop beating yourself up.”

Pablo Carreno Busta

Final Podium for 2020 Tokyo Olympics Tennis:
Gold: Mixed Doubles
Silver: Women's Singles
Bronze: Men's Doubles

—Helen of DC

• Think that’s about right. a) Mixed doubles is/are awesome and tennis needs to figure out how to do more with it. A secret (and value add) hidden in plain sight. b) Belinda Bencic needs a name check. What a week. c) Who knew there was a song by Aslan called “Secret Smile.” Rest assured the gargoyle that is Aslan Karatsev was not the inspiration. d) The omission, of course, is men’s singles. There’s a larger discussion we can have another time, but this discomfort that surrounds watching Alexander Zverev persists for how long?

Jon, take a well-deserved bow or victory lap for being well-ahead of everyone in singling out Casper Ruud as the one who was most likely to be the next to bust out of the pack and emerge as the new hot thing in men's tennis. I’m speaking of the piece you did on the ol’ podcast (..the currently dormant podcast that we hope will return at some point). I’d say winning three straight tournaments and a jump up into the top 15 qualifies. Is this kid now a possible Grand Slam champion and what do you think is his best surface?
—Joe F.

• Thanks but it’s not about me; it’s about Casper. This Ruud awakening, as it were, encompassed his winning three events in successive weeks. As Joe notes, let’s see how this translates and transfers to North American hard courts. (I see no reason why not.) But, yes, as Mark Knopfler would say, “He got the action, he got the motion, Yeah, the boy can play.”

Jon, the thing that Novak did that was most upsetting was pulling out of mixed doubles. He really let his countrywoman and his country down. I would be furious if I were her. Even if he could only hit slice backhands he should have played.
—@timmayotte

• For the record, another former player texted me similarly, “Djoko backing out of mixed doubles, deplorable. Once in a lifetime opportunity for his partner to medal. This is horrific conduct in my view.”

Reflexively, I agree with this. Certainly on the surface it’s a bad look. Plenty of players withdraw from doubles and mixed doubles during majors. But this is the Olympics. Still….I’m a little uneasy with outright condemnation here. We don’t know athletes’ bodies; it’s easy to get burned speculating who is and isn’t sufficiently injured.
I’m also including Tim’s note to make another point. The Djokovic loyalists who dismiss all criticism as either bitter Federer/Nadal fans or the hopelessly biased mainstream Western media are off-base. Here is a former top player—known for his dignity and objectivity and level-headedness—writing in, unprompted, to condemn Djokovic. There is a real perception issue here.

Jon, I saw you tweeted out the WTA schedule for the rest of the season with no China events. What does this mean for the WTA Finals?
—Tonya A.

• This is the big question. It’s an open secret that both tours make a great deal of their revenue—and thus cover a great deal of their operating expenses—through the year-end tournament. (It’s also an open secret that the WTA over-extended in China and is paying for that bet; but that’s another conversation for another time.) The year-end event that was supposed to be held in Shenzhen ain’t happening. But I was told that the WTA is hellbent on holding it elsewhere.

Where? I’ve heard a number of options. Singapore (a past host), a market in Europe (delta variant permitting) and….wait for it….Hong Kong. Which, of course, is a Djokovic racket chuck away from Shenzhen. Which would please Gemdale and the sponsors, but make for odd optics. 

Really miss your podcast. Hope you find time to resume it soon. Love to hear your take on French and Wimbledon.
—David Heid

• Thanks. Really appreciate that. On account of limited bandwidth and Sports Illustrated rethinking our podcast strategy, it's in a Dominic Theim type of indefinite pause. But we’ll bring it back in some form. Happily, there are strong alternatives, starting with David, Catherine and Matt on the Tennis Podcast.

Hey Jon, Djokovic has mentioned his respect for [Steffi] Graf, even indicating that he’d like to get in touch with her to ask her how she was able to complete the Golden Slam. Do you think that the failure by, arguably, the future men’s GOAT, should put a renewed focus on and respect for Graf and what she was able to achieve?
—Daniel, Houston

• I feel like we’ve talked about this before. When Steffi Graf retired, she indicated she was over it. Over the sponsor grip-and-grins. Over the WTA promotions. Over the media obligations. And, wow, has she been committed to the role. I say that with all respect. Her time, her choice. 

But, regrettably, one offshoot of her subterranean profile—“low prole” underrated it by a factor 10—is that it makes fans forget about the sheer awesomeness of her achievements. This week was a hell of a reminder. Whether it’s her major haul—with a retirement age of 30—or her 1988 or her weeks at No. 1….to quote Almost Famous (which is on in the lobby of my hotel right now), “She is/was a golden goddess." Speaking of….

My all-time favorite tennis player will always be Roger Federer, but if I had to choose one tennis player to play for my life, hands down it would be Novak Djokovic—irrespective of surface. I've never seen a more competitive and mentally tough tennis player in all the years I've watched the game. In the 2010 and 2011 U.S. Open Semis, and 2019 Wimbledon Final he beat Federer (one of the great closers) from two match points down. I don't think any other player could've done that—alive or dead. Pancho Gonzalez and Connors would be close. But it's Djoker for my life. Who would you choose to play for your life? Past or present.
—Cheers, Franklyn

• The lame answer is to beg and beggar more context. What’s the surface? Djokovic 2021 or Djokovic 2016? Who’s the opponent? What’s the equipment? For me, though, the answer is Serena. At least in her considerable prime. This stat will be distorted by her results at age 35+. But when she won her 23rd major, it was her 29th major final.

Hi Jon: Enjoying your work as always. Can't help but think Nadal skipping Wimbledon and entering WDC (and likely other hard court events this summer) is proof positive he's taking an "Over My Dead Body" approach (which is how he looked after losing the semis in Paris) to keep Novak from winning the Open, the calendar GS, and taking the lead in majors—a lead, I dare say, he won't relinquish. In other words, for Rafa, this is personal. The draw alone should be super-interesting, no? Keep up the great work.
—Daniel Lubin, Rancho Palos Verdes, CA

• Hey, thanks. Yeah, this has the ring of Rocky training on the beach. I’ll be damned if I’m going to roll over and let this challenger overtake me without a fight. I’m told the D.C. organizers asked Nadal what he wanted to do while he was in town. They were effectively told, “Thanks, but he’s here to train and win the title; not play tourist.” 

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