For most of his career, Novak Djokovic has been chasing a shadow. And how close he was to catching the ageless king, Roger Federer. How desperate he was to wear his crown. How shattered he now is after an evening of madness at Flushing Meadows.
When the world No 1 took a spare ball from his pocket after being broken against the run of play near the end of the first set in his fourth-round match with the Spaniard Pablo Carreño Busta, and sent it spinning innocently towards the back of the court, his whole career unravelled in slow motion.
A look of horror spread across his face as the ball landed on the full in the throat of an unsuspecting line judge. It did not appear to be travelling at speed but she did not pick up its trajectory and, when struck, slid to the ground, coughing loudly and distressed. The replay of Djokovic moving towards her like a man drowning in quicksand sent two wholly different messages: he was concerned, obviously, that he had hurt her; but he knew too he had damaged his career, perhaps beyond repair. His pursuit of the shadow had stalled disastrously.
This, surely, would never have happened to Federer. Like many players, the “Swiss gentleman” – as Novak’s former coach Boris Becker calls him – has indeed occasionally flicked a ball away in frustration. But none had landed on a fan. The ball would not be so impertinent. It was Djokovic’s rotten luck that an innocent official had got in the way.
What then unfolded compounded his dilemma. He pleaded for clemency with officials for fully 10 minutes. With palms upturned, he managed a weak smile, jovially trying to take the steam out of the crisis, much as a schoolboy might when caught smoking behind the bike shed. He meant no harm. But Djokovic was wrestling with the obvious: he was about to be thrown out of the 2020 US Open.
This was a grand slam championship he was almost universally favoured to win for the fourth time in the absence of Federer and the defending champion, Rafael Nadal. This was the title that would edge him up to 18 majors, one behind the 34-year-old Spaniard, two behind the 39-year-old Swiss. There were only kids in his way and he was playing superbly.
It got worse. Advised of his fate, Djokovic zipped his bag and walked in quiet fury from Arthur Ashe Court, so often the scene of his triumphs. But, instead of heading for the mandatory press conference, where he surely would have faced a barrage of difficult questions, he collected his clothes, went to the car park and was driven back to his rented house. Authority at this moment meant nothing to him. He was indulging in exceptionalism.
He probably knew at that time he would lose $250,000 in prize money and all his ranking points, as well as great chunk of dignity. At his house – or perhaps on the way – he composed an apology and put it on Instagram, in English for his critics and Serbian for his bewildered compatriots. It was full but strangely unconvincing. The incident had left him “sad and empty”, he said. He was “extremely sorry” to have caused the woman such stress. “So unintended. So wrong,” he wrote.
And then the self-justification and plea for understanding: “As for the disqualification, I need to go back within and work on my disappointment and turn this all into a lesson for my growth and evolution as a player and human being.”
No. What he needed to do was return to the scene of the crime and own it. Tim Henman, who was disqualified for a similar incident at Wimbledon in 1995 when he accidentally struck a ballgirl, got it right when he said: “He should have faced up to it and apologised and accept he made a mistake. But, by in essence running away from it, it’s just going to go on even longer.”
As Djokovic’s car cruised out of the car park, he was putting self preservation above his obligations. He has previous. At the back of his mind, he was surely aware of it. In 2016 he was chided for bouncing his racket in frustration, narrowly missing a line judge at Roland Garros. A few months later at the ATP World Tour Finals in London, he hit a ball into the crowd. Nobody was hurt either time – except Djokovic.
He took grave exception to questions from the British about his complacent behaviour. It was as likely to snow inside the O2 Arena, he joked, as his ball strike and injure a spectator. There is no joking now for @DjokerNole as his 8.7 million Twitter followers know him.
Many of them will descend on his critics, indignant that their hero’s integrity should be questioned. He has given tennis in that part of the world pride and joy since leading Serbia to Davis Cup glory in 2009. The slams flowed for him thereafter and here he was, in 2020, at 33, the best player in the world, no question.
Djokovic is not a bad man, but an occasionally intemperate and foolish one. He has raised many millions for Covid-19 sufferers in the Balkans, he is generous with his time and he is often thoughtful and perceptive, as well as funny. But he is also driven, and his ambition has sometimes warped his judgment.
While he was moving smoothly through the draw, he was also bringing together a players’ association he knew would seriously disrupt the sport in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of a slam and only eight months into the life of a new administration at the ATP. Many players agree with him that they need independent representation. However, more of them have questioned his timing and some wonder about his motives. Was he trying to take over tennis? Not any more, it would seem.
Djokovic gives the appearance of leadership but does not always deliver it. His well-meant but doomed Balkans exhibition Tour – during and after which he and other players, as well as his wife, tested positive for coronavirus – should have been a wake-up moment for his followers.
Ultimately, he is revealed not as a leader but a self-absorbed freewheeler. It will take a good deal of his claimed humility and spiritual awareness to repair the damage of one foolish night.
The mere tennis consequences of this are easier to comprehend. When Federer failed to cash in on two match points in the Wimbledon final last year to allow Djokovic to move to 16 majors, four behind his own record of 20, he was crushed. This was the real face of their rivalry, undercutting the public smiles. Djokovic added another major in Melbourne and went on a winning spree that reminded everyone of the sequence of 41 he put together in 2011.
Covid struck and the Tour was suspended. Federer took the opportunity to have a second knee operation and withdrew from the season. Nadal stayed away, wary of the virus and more focused on the French Open. Djokovic knew that if he stayed fit he could make up valuable ground on both of them. As Alexander Zverev pointed out, Djokovic was the only grand slam title winner left in a weakened field. What a fool he was on Sunday night.