Novak Djokovic
World No 1 Novak Djokovic was thrown out of the US Open after hitting a ball towards the back of court that struck female official in the neck Image Credit: Ador T Bustamante/Gulf News

Albert Schweitzer, the 20th century theologian, organist, writer, humanitarian, philosopher and physician from Germany remarkably observes: “In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out.

It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”

Perhaps, with too much now on his plate, world number one men’s tennis player Novak Djokovic is exacting precisely that as he seeks to sidestep from the shadows of his peers — Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, in particular.

Djokovic has never attracted the same affection as his biggest rivals Federer and Nadal and critics rightfully took aim — both for his on-court behaviour and the way he fled Flushing Meadows without facing the media and owning up to his mistake barring a hastily released apology on the social media platform

- Alaric Gomes

First came the now infamous Adria Tour — the exhibition tennis tour held in Serbia and Croatia from June 13 to July 5 — during the ATP Tour’s shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

That string of four exhibition events in the Balkans turned soured when Djokovic, his wife Jelena, three other players, three coaches and one player’s pregnant wife all tested positive for the virus bringing the ambitious event to a grinding halt in the middle of the second week itself.

Overconfident star

Unlike other exhibition events during the pandemic, there was limited social distancing on the Adria Tour, which was played to crowded stadiums, with players hugging and high-fiving each other, playing basketball and dancing together through the night.

Things happen, and in this case they did with full force as the world number one from Serbia became a glaring example of being callous and a bit too overconfident for comfort.

Aided by the rather sycophantic fan base called ‘Nolefam’, who take it upon themselves to defend their man to the hilt on all matters while attacking anyone who dares criticise him, Djokovic is a well protected species both in his homeland and abroad.

Making history

But then, towards the end of August, Djokovic made history after defeating Milos Raonic in three sets to win his second Cincinnati Masters title.

By doing so, he also landed his 35th Masters 1000 title, equalling Nadal’s record of most ATP Masters 1000 titles and completing his second Career Golden Masters.

And then, in a moment of joy, he landed with a second mess on his hands after using the post-final ceremony of the Cincinnati Masters to announce his stepping down as President of the ATP Player Council, while launching his breakaway Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA).

His claim, though, was that he and his new body was fighting for the welfare of lower-ranked players, although many big names including Nadal and Federer came out opposing the move.

But it really didn’t matter to the 33-year-old from Belgrade. He had his own thinking on all matters while also chasing an 18th Grand Slam in a crowd-less New York.

The undoing

And then, last Sunday during the fourth round of the US Open, Djokovic’s world came crumbling down after he was defaulted after recklessly striking a ball, inadvertently hitting line official Laura Clark in the throat during his match against Pablo Carreno Busta.

The US Tennis Association was quick to act with the default also accompanied by the docking of all ranking points he earned at the tournament along with his prize money in tow.

To the viewer, it was a complete accident, but was also borne out of frustration and anger after having his serve broken to trail 5-6 at the end of the first set.

Djokovic has never attracted the same affection as his biggest rivals Federer and Nadal and critics rightfully took aim — both for his on-court behaviour and the way he fled Flushing Meadows without facing the media and owning up to his mistake barring a hastily released apology on the social media platform.

And now, at least two men and two women — all of who know the Serbian only too well — have offered possible explanations of the man and his behaviour.

First the women — his wife Jelena along with former world number five Daniela Hantuchova — used their own means to caution the player.

Possibly and understandably the closest to the world number one, Jelena quoted from the ‘The Wisdom of Tao’ to address Djokovic. “If you let yourself be blown to and fro, you lose touch with your root. If you let restlessness move you, you lose touch with who you are,” she wrote on her social media while reaching out to her husband.

Few harsh truths

Hantuchova — who is extremely close to the Djokovick — was even more revealing in her comments made on Amazon Prime UK’s broadcast of the US Open.

For the record, Hantuchova has known Djokovic since his early days on tour and is a huge supporter. And the former world number five, who is close to his coach and fellow Slovakian Marian Vajda, wasn’t afraid to blurt out a few harsh truths.

Hantuchova said the 17-time major winner has an anger management problem and needs to seek professional help. She further added that an incident like what the tennis world saw in New York was a long time coming and Djokovic has nobody to blame, but himself. “It feels like sometimes the anger comes out of control,” Hantuchova rebuked.

“I care so much about him and respect everything he is doing for our game, but I just hope there is a lesson to be learnt, even if this one came at the worst possible time, where pretty much the only thing standing between him and an 18th grand slam title was himself, with all my respect to the other players,” she added.

Too much on his plate

And then the sensibility of two men who have known him up close and personal — former coach Boris Becker and Serena Williams’s coach Patrick Mouratoglou. Mouratoglou believes the world number one is spreading himself too thin off the court. “I feel he [Djokovic] had too much on his plate: trying to win this US Open was already a huge goal,” he tweeted.

“Starting this players’ association and a campaign in order to convince players to be part of it is a full time job and a lot of extra stress. Nobody can afford to lose focus during a Grand Slam,” he added.

Becker, who has coached Djokovic to many of his successes earlier in his career, was to the point. “I feared Novak may have taken on too much when I saw everything that was happening around the new organisation,” Becker was quoted in the Mail.

“For example, when Adrian Mannarino was being prevented last Friday by local health officials from taking to the court (due to his contacts with positively-tested Benoit Paire), it was the world No 1 who was trying to reach the State Governor on his behalf to help him.

He was even playing his own match that night. Most top players would have got their agent involved or something, but instead Novak took it on himself. You cannot pile these extra pressures on during a Grand Slam,” the German added.

The Man in the Glass

And as the world weighs its pros and its cons in the Djokovic saga, we may well remember what Dale Wimbrow so stoically observed in his 1934 poem ‘The Man in the Glass’:

“You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years

And get pats on the back as you pass

But your final reward will be heartache and tears

If you’ve cheated the man in the glass.”

Will Djokovic take heed to counsel? Will he show a bit more maturity and walk away in his normal nonchalant manner?

Or will he be up to grace in admitting to his human and humane nature — yearning aspects that may endear himself to the sporting world — just like a Federer or a Nadal.

Time alone will tell.