As one wag observed, it was ironic that – in the first grand-slam tournament ever played in an empty stadium – Novak Djokovic should have been defaulted for hitting someone with a tennis ball.
Djokovic cannot claim that he hasn’t been warned. Indeed, after a match at the O2 Arena in 2016, a British reporter questioned him closely about his habit of lashing out with racket or ball when he was frustrated, and asked whether he was concerned that it might cost him dearly in the future.
The conversation happened shortly after Djokovic – who had dropped the first set that night to Austria’s Dominic Thiem – had slammed a ball furiously towards his own support staff in his player box. The ball skimmed just over his coaches’ heads, and given how tightly packed the stadium was, he was hugely fortunate that it bounced back off the few seats that were kept empty in that area.
During the press conference that followed, Djokovic responded to an enquiry about whether such behaviour might cost him one day by saying “You guys are unbelievable. You’re always picking these kind of things.”
The reporter replied “But if you keep doing these things…” before Djokovic cut him off. “I keep doing these things? Why don’t I get suspended then?” When asked what might have happened if the ball had hit a spectator, he added “It could have snowed in O2 Arena as well, but it didn’t. It’s not an issue for me. It’s not the first time I did it.”
This much was true. Only six months earlier, at the French Open, Djokovic had been roundly booed by the Roland Garros faithful after hurling his racket towards the backboard during his quarter-final against Tomas Berdych. The motion was uncannily similar to the one he used on Sunday night, in that both times he was facing forward and swung behind himself without looking – once striking the ball and the other time throwing the racket.
Fortunately, the French Open linesman was watching him, and shimmied neatly out of the way, otherwise that official would probably have ended up in an even worse state than the unfortunate lineswoman who found herself gasping for breath on Sunday after being smacked in the throat by a fast-moving tennis ball.
At this event, too, Djokovic was asked about his near-miss, and responded sarcastically. To a question about what he was trying to do, and whether he was aware how close he could have come to a default, Djokovic replied “It's obvious what I tried to do. I threw a racquet on the ground and it slipped and almost hit the line umpire. I was lucky there. That's all.”
The reporter followed up by asking “You’re lucky he moved, weren’t you?” To which Djokovic replied “Yeah, I’m lucky. Great.”
Perhaps these occasional eruptions are the inevitable outcome of Djokovic’s volcanic intensity. He plays like a man with hot lava boiling away inside him, and sometimes that fire shows itself in unflattering ways. We could also bring up the numerous occasions when he has apparently experienced some kind of loss of balance, or physical crisis, in the middle of a match when he has otherwise performed brilliantly.
The most notorious instance of this latter syndrome, for British fans, dates back to the 2015 Australian Open final when Andy Murray admitted that he had lost his concentration at the sight of Djokovic limping around and stretching out his legs early in the third set. Asked after the match if Djokovic had been play-acting the symptoms of cramp, Murray replied “I don't know. I would hope that that wouldn't be the case. But, yeah, if it was cramp, that's a tough thing to recover from and play as well as he did at the end.”
Djokovic has an unbending will to win: that much is uncontestable. He also tends to be followed around by controversy. One way or another, he has made himself the new Jimmy Connors – the agent provocateur whom so many tennis fans see as the villain of the piece.
You only have to look back at the recent finals that Djokovic has shared with Roger Federer in New York and at Wimbledon to hear the almost embarrassing disparity in the way the crowd responds to the two players. And that was before his catastrophic 2020, which has witnessed him querying the necessity of a potential Covid-19 vaccination, launching a players’ association at the most insensitive time, and lambasting the Association of Tennis Professionals for the way they handled the Black Lives Matter protests that caused the suspension of play for 24 hours.
Even his immediate exit from the Billie Jean King Tennis Centre on Sunday – without talking to the press – was unbecoming for a world No1, in the eyes of both Amazon Prime studio pundits Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman. So when Djokovic returns to Roland Garros in a couple of weeks, he may be glad if there are no fans in the grounds to jeer him.