Novak Djokovic’s image needs more work than his tennis game at US Open

Tennis

NEW YORK — The rubber soles of his shoes squealed like the brakes of a subway car grinding to a halt as Novak Djokovic sprinted, hit, slid and violently changed direction on the hard court in Louis Armstrong Stadium. His grunts were magnified by the echo in the cavernous, nearly empty arena. Hearing his roar of triumph, children — had any been present among the roughly 200, socially distanced onlookers at this fan-free spectacle — might have cried.

Tennis is alive and well in New York. The unique soundtrack to a typical Djokovic match was a comforting score again Saturday as he defeated Milos Raonic in three sets to win the Western & Southern Open — the first official ATP event following the long hiatus triggered in mid-March by the coronavirus pandemic. The tournament was relocated from its traditional home in Cincinnati, partly to serve as a safe tune-up for the US Open, which begins Monday in the same controlled environment.

Djokovic, who for a long time had expressed reservations about even taking part in this “double in the bubble,” appears to be tuned. As well he should be, given that he’s coming to New York with unfinished business to resolve, much but not all of it having to do with his legacy in tennis. He begins his quest Monday against Damir Dzumhur on Arthur Ashe Stadium (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

Djokovic, 33, came to Gotham the winner of 17 Grand Slam singles titles — third behind Roger Federer (20) and Rafael Nadal (19). Were it not for the pandemic, Djokovic might be competing in the coming days with a chance to draw even with Nadal. Wimbledon, where Djokovic is defending champion, was canceled altogether. The French Open was postponed and rescheduled for late September.

The pandemic has led many people, including tennis professionals, to step back and soberly reassess their single-mindedness, along with their priorities and goals. Not Djokovic.

“Obviously, things have changed from the standpoint of the way we are competing, the way we are restarting the season, no crowd in the stands, wearing masks all over the place,” Djokovic said a few days ago. “But from the perspective of Roger, Rafa, myself and our race, it hasn’t changed much. I mean, it’s only six months that have passed [since Djokovic claimed title 17 at the Australian Open].”

The top-ranked player had other good reasons to overcome his reluctance to compete in the Grand Slam event he has swept three times in eight finals, most recently in 2018. Last year, he abandoned his fourth-round match with Stan Wawrinka after losing the first two sets, citing an injured shoulder.

“I always love playing in New York,” Djokovic said after his win over Raonic. He was delighted that he had two “fantastic” tests (he survived a similarly tense three-setter on Friday against Roberto Bautista Agut) to prep for the US Open. “I think I’m not the only one who shares the opinion that this is probably the most exciting, energetic, dynamic, explosive tennis court that we have in the sport.”

The win extended Djokovic’s perfect, if interrupted, record in 2020 to 23-0, and fantasies of equaling or surpassing his career-best streak (41 matches to start 2011) are dancing in his head. He said earlier in the week that going undefeated is a possibility, but he wasn’t counting on it. Djokovic is now assured of surpassing Pete Sampras to loom large in Federer’s rearview mirror in the race to spend the most weeks at No. 1 since the rankings were started in 1973. Djokovic has held the spot for 282 weeks, just 28 off Federer’s record.

“Djokovic has been the best player in the game since 2011,” ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert recently said. “He’s on a nine-year run.”

Said fellow ESPN analyst Jason Goodall on Saturday: “This tournament will be Novak Djokovic against the field. And most people are picking Novak.”

Commanding and competitive as he is, the 33-year-old Serb, already an icon, has no pressing need to prove anything on the tennis court. But he does come into the US Open in need of some image rehabilitation. Djokovic, who had long been seen as a rough-around-the-edges third wheel in the Federer-Nadal rivalry, has worked diligently to position himself as a comparable role model and ambassador for the game, not always successfully. The effort took some hits during the shutdown.

In late April, Djokovic took a public anti-vaccination position, saying in a Facebook livestream, “Personally, I am opposed to vaccination, and I wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine in order to be able to travel.” His stance raised eyebrows.

Then, in the spring, when USTA officials declared their grand ambition to host the US Open at its scheduled time with a host of health protocols in place, Djokovic was one of the most outspoken skeptics. As plans evolved in early June, Djokovic told Serbia’s Prva TV that it would be impossible for him to compete in the US Open because, “The rules that they told us that we would have to respect to be there, to play at all, they are extreme.”

Djokovic bridled at early-stage plans to mandate that players stay outside Manhattan in a bio-secure hotel. A dedicated pro with a large, hard-charging support team, Djokovic said the mandate to bring just one additional person on-site was “really impossible.”

As the curve of the pandemic flattened in New York, the restrictions became less onerous. But by then, the damage was done. Many, including financially imperiled lower-ranked players desperate to begin earning a living again, suggested that Djokovic was being a self-centered prima donna.

“I don’t think having one person of your team only allowed is such a big deal,” British player Dan Evans told the BBC at the time. “The majority of the [players in the] draw would only travel with one coach.”

Then came the Adria Tour.

Organized by Djokovic in a well-meaning effort to raise money for charity and give his fellow players some work, the tour became a public relations nightmare after only one of the five planned tournaments was completed. Although the Serbian government had green-lighted the enterprise, the flagrant lack of social distancing (the players, led by Djokovic, were filmed dancing shirtless in a crowded Belgrade nightclub) led to a number of positive COVID-19 tests — Djokovic and his wife among them (they manifested no symptoms).

“Novak is the top player in the world, and head of the player council (he has since resigned),” Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone told ESPN.com. “In terms of leadership, there’s a magnifying glass on you, and this one didn’t resonate in a positive way.”

“We tried to do something with the right intentions,” Djokovic insisted. But the criticism (some from fellow top players, including Nick Kyrgios) became such a drumbeat that he ultimately characterized it as a “witch hunt.”

“Everybody likes to feel liked, to be loved,” Goodall said. “That’s been an issue for Novak. A lot of us now feel he needs a [public relations] win, but I don’t think he sees it that way. He believes he was following the guidelines of his own government, and didn’t do anything wrong.”

Given the diligence with which Djokovic has cultivated his image as a global citizen, the controversies and criticisms must have stung. They might also have influenced his decision to play in the media capital of the world, while Nadal held out to focus on his beloved clay and the upcoming French Open (Federer is out for the year because of a knee injury). Arriving in New York, Djokovic took up residence in a rented private home outside Manhattan monitored, as mandated by the USTA, by security guards to ensure that nobody violated the rules against traveling to Manhattan or receiving unapproved visitors.

Djokovic’s desire to put the controversies of the shutdown period behind him got off to a rocky start when, before the start of the Western & Southern Open, he gave an interview at his rented home to the New York Times. Acknowledging that renting the home was an expensive luxury, Djokovic said: “With the trees and serenity, being in this kind of environment is a blessing. I’m grateful, because I’ve seen the hotel where the majority of players are staying. I don’t want to sound arrogant … but it’s tough for most of the players, not being able to open their window and being in a hotel in a small room.”

To many, he sounded arrogant.

Andy Murray, Djokovic’s long-time friend and rival, seemed to manage fine in his “small room” at the bio-secure player hotel. Having rejected rental housing because of the “astronomical” cost, Murray said: “I went for the bubble. It’s nice. They’ve done a really good job at the hotel. They’ve got games and arcades and things like that, which I enjoy. I’m still a bit of a child in that respect.”

Djokovic quickly began to sing a different tune about the US Open once he experienced the site.

“I worked closely in the council with the ATP, and obviously ATP management has worked closely with USTA to make this happen,” Djokovic said of the double in the bubble in his first news conference. “I think the bottom line is that it’s positive that we are here. I congratulate the USTA, ATP, everyone who has been involved to make this happen. It’s not easy. We are one of the few global sports that have not found a way to keep going. … This is not only about us top 100 players, you know, participating here in the US Open and Cincinnati, as well. This is about the tennis ecosystem in general.”

Djokovic clearly hopes to have a greater influence in that tennis “ecosystem,” judging from his leading role in an attempt to create a kind of players’ union (formally, the Professional Tennis Players’ Association) — an entity that would unavoidably challenge the status quo in the ATP Tour.

It seems an odd time for someone who is legendary for the harsh disciplines he embraced in the name of his profession to pour energy into such a dry and demanding enterprise — especially when the three other members of the Big Four have rejected his plan.

But perhaps that’s a good outcome for Djokovic. His bid to assume the leadership role in tennis might provide him a way to eclipse and distinguish himself from Federer and Nadal, those icons whose popularity he looks to equal. Who can forget Djokovic’s majestic win over Federer in the 2019 Wimbledon final, a match in which Djokovic responded to resounding chants of “Ro-ger, Ro-ger, Ro-ger” by imagining that they were shouting “No-vak, No-vak, No-vak.”

“There’s been a lot of off-court things that I kind of had to be involved in, directly or indirectly,” Djokovic said Saturday afternoon, referring to the attention paid to his political ambitions. “It was not easy, definitely, especially in the last three, four days. It has been challenging mentally and emotionally for me to stay sane and be able to compete on the highest level and win this title.”

Djokovic’s activities are puzzling to many in tennis.

“It’s surprising that [Djokovic] would attempt to go about this political stiff whilst he’s chasing the all-time Grand Slam tally in the crucial, last years of his career,” Goodall said. “It has to be a bit of a distraction.”

The other contenders at the US Open are not drawing any false hopes from Djokovic’s extracurricular activities. As Tennys Sandgren said of the challenge of playing in the unique atmosphere of the National Tennis Center: “Someone like Novak is extremely gifted at playing mental games with himself, once he’s committed to play. When you’re able to hear someone else’s name and change it to your own in the middle of a match, you’re pretty gifted.”

The players also rejected the suggestion that the tournament result will be slapped with an asterisk because of the absences of, among others, Federer, Nadal and Wawrinka.

Taylor Fritz gave the best reason for forgetting about asterisks when he told ESPN, “Who was in the final at the Australian Open? Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem. They are both here. I mean, come on. Sure some people are missing, but in the end, there’s only one winner, and a lot of the times that winner is Djokovic — who is here.”

Although most players agree that the spectator-less US Open will be a boon to fired-up underdogs and low-ranked players who have no experience drawing inspiration from a frenzied, adoring crowd, the just-completed tournament also demonstrated that once play is underway it’s pretty easy to set aside all things but a fierce, point-by-point focus on the job at hand.

When Daniil Medvedev, last year’s US Open runner-up to Nadal, was asked if the tumult Djokovic was embroiled in during the shutdown hurt his chances to succeed in New York, he said: “As for many of us, something that goes against him makes him stronger. The most important thing is going to be how good are you playing tennis, and let’s see where he is right now.”

Right now, Djokovic is in a very good place. He continues to win a staggering number of tennis matches. He pretty much has won the minds of tennis experts. Hearts? That’s something else. Like the hunt for Grand Slam titles, that quest goes on.

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