James Morgan: The inability to accept unavoidable transgression casts a shadow over Novak Djokovic


James Morgan James Morgan

You can tell from the face of a tennis player a lot. Particularly these days, when the super-slo-mos of cameras are so revealing that, with the accuracy of a David Attenborough nature show, they capture the life cycle of a bead of sweat.

Not just that, but all the rest you see up close. As their frustration and indignation is that of a teenage street bully, you know when they know they have skipped a quick forehand winner down the line. You know when they’re exalted because you can sense the smug look around them of the big-city hustler; and then, on the other hand, there’s the thousand-yard gaze of the vanquished soon-to-be. Tennis is a violent, solitary sport in its rawest form, and the face is a glimpse into the psychological war that rages inside.

It’s biochemical, as well. If it’s caused by overwork or a physical injury, you can see the pained face. Basically, no hiding place exists.

When Novak Djokovic swatted a ball away in frustration during his round of 16 match against Pablo Carreno Busta at Flushing Meadows on Sunday night, you could see the exact moment the world No. 1 knew his US Open was over. The look of horror was there as his hands went up to his face. He knew this was a car accident, and the rest of the world has known this was happening for a while.

The Serbian knows those rules well. Just like he understands that after seven games you switch sides or that Grand Slam matches are played for the better part of five sets, in the tournament’s rulebook, the punishments for dealing with unsportsmanlike behaviour are written in black and white.

He was already standing on the court and debating with umpire Soeren Friemel, who said that leniency should have been given because the linesman didn’t require hospital care.

But here, there was a precedent. Tournament officials frown on any opposition that jeopardizes the safety of fire-fired fans, referees, ball boys and ball girls, adversaries or anyone else in the line of fire.

In the 1995 Wimbledon men’s doubles tournament with partner Jeremy Bates, Tim Henman was infamously thrown out for hitting a ball girl with a ball, while David Nalbandian was disqualified in Queens in 2012 when he kicked a linesman in the shin for a breathtaking act of petulance. More recently, for throwing a ball on the ground that struck the umpire in the chest, Canadian Denis Shapovalov was disqualified for the Davis Cup rubber.

On previous occasions, Djokovic has sailed hard into the wind. He displayed signs of anger even in his ill-fated match against Carreno Busta on Sunday, but this was a replication of previous near-misses.

He hit a ball into the crowd at the 2016 ATP Tour Finals and then responded incredulously when asked about it later by the Times sportswriter Neil McLeman, denying claims that it was problematic behaviour for a player at the top of the sport.

An incident against Tomas Berdych at the French Open that year also followed, in which Djokovic hurled his racket and narrowly missed a linesman. He smashed his racket into the sand last year at the Monte Carlo Open and hurled it into the crowd during an epic collapse.

He missed the mandatory post-match press conference after his misdemeanor on Sunday and was fined $20,000, not to mention the $126,000 he has now lost in prize money.

That didn’t look nice, especially because during the post-match debrief, Shapovalov, who was only 17 at the time of the incident in 2017, immediately apologized on camera. This was an adolescent admitting his mistake; Djokovic is 33 and the newly founded Professional Tennis Players Association’s self-proclaimed president.

But with Djokovic, there has always been a feeling of entitlement. Take, for example, his decision to stage a tournament in Belgrade at the height of the coronavirus pandemic for two of the participants, which resulted in positive results for Covid 19.

Fanboys and fangirls on social media rushed to his defense on Sunday, arguing – like Djokovic himself – that the sentence did not suit the crime and that Friemel was subject to a variety of other punishments.

Djokovic may have referred to Aljaz Bedene, who at the recent Western & Southern Open just got a rule infringement for hitting a cameraman. The Slovenian got away lucky, but that was also something else. He was standing, as Djokovic noted, at


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