Tennis: When the world No. 1 was made to feel like the World Number None

Novak Djokovic’s default in the fourth round of the US Open was the first time he was made to feel like the World Number None. The second was the loss to Rafael Nadal in the final of the French Open.

Novak Djokovic lost to Rafael Nadal in the French Open Final for the third time.   -  Getty Images

The greatest of players can witness moments in their careers when their greatness is severely undermined.

Novak Djokovic, the current world No.1 in singles tennis, faced two such moments this year.

When Djokovic entered the US Open 2020, he came riding on the back of an unbeaten 2020 tennis season, which was, albeit, an abbreviated one due to the pandemic.

His fourth-round match was against the Spaniard Pablo Carreño Busta. The first set was proceeding neck and neck, and at the end of the 11th game, the Spaniard was leading 6-5. That was when Djokovic experienced a moment of intense frustration as he realised that Carreño Busta was one game away from clinching the first set. Djokovic randomly hit the ball towards the baseline, and it went straight at the throat of a lines judge who doubled up and collapsed on the floor, clutching her throat in agony.

I had been watching this match live on television and it was around 2am in India.

Djokovic was alarmed as he turned around and took stock of the unintended but hairraising consequence of his casual act. US Tennis Association (USTA) officials confronted him, and very soon it was apparent to everyone watching the match that this was serious. Djokovic started pleading his case on court. He had hit the ball accidentally and unintentionally. Further, after being examined by the medical expert, the lines judge appeared to recover and regain her composure, and she walked off the court to recuperate.

However, the chair umpire and the tournament referee were firm in their stance. As per the rules, hitting a lines judge, even unintentionally, calls for the erring player to be defaulted from the tournament.

And that’s how, despite pleading his case fervently, Novak Djokovic was defaulted from the US Open 2020 in the fourth round. He lost all the prize money earned till that stage and was also fined. And, very importantly, he lost a precious opportunity to win another Grand Slam title and add to his existing haul of 17.

The whole incident appeared eerie. All the more so because it was the dead of night in India. A freak accident that led to his disqualification.

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It was the first moment in 2020 and in the entire phase of his career at the top that the world No. 1 was made to feel like the World Number None.

I wondered if the fourth round of the US Open was jinxed for Djokovic. In 2019, when playing against Stan Wawrinka at the same stage, severe trauma from a previous shoulder injury forced Djokovic to retire in the third set. Wawrinka had clinched the first two sets in that match. Another instance where Djokovic’s march towards the US Open title had been halted at the same milestone and again without being able to complete the match.

But what the world No. 1’s disqualification at the 2020 US Open did for the sport was send out a signal loud and clear that no one, absolutely no one, was above the rules of the game and that they would be applicable impartially to all concerned, irrespective of their stature, accomplishments or current standing.

Djokovic went on to tender a public apology. And there was something very noteworthy that he mentioned in that apology: “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.”

And walk the talk he did when he lifted the ATP Masters 1000 Italian Open trophy exactly a fortnight after being defaulted from the US Open.

The wounded lion had rebounded with this comprehensive victory and left no doubt in any one’s mind that he was truly the king of the jungle, in more ways than one. He created a new record by winning his 36th Masters 1000 title, the most in the history of tennis.

In his fourth-round match at the US Open, Novak Djokovic randomly hit the ball towards the baseline, and it went straight at the throat of a lines judge who doubled up and collapsed on the floor, clutching her throat in agony.   -  AP

 

Fast forward to the quarterfinals of the French Open 2020. Djokovic was pitted once again against his US Open fourth-round nemesis, Carreño Busta. It was déjà vu as the first set proceeded neck and neck, similar to the US Open fourth round. Carreño Busta went on to win the set 6-4. But there were no temper tantrums from the world No. 1 this time around. At least not of the kind that would earn a disqualification. The lesson had been learnt, and learnt the hard and very expensive way.

This was a new Djokovic, much more calm and composed and in control of his emotions. The Italian Open victory was a great morale booster. And that was just the dose of tonic that he needed to overcome his US Open disappointment. And he wasn’t about to throw caution to the wind and halt his march in the French Open by repeating his costly mistake of the previous Slam.

Djokovic was able to summon every ounce of his courage there onwards as he overcame the ghosts of his last encounter with Carreño Busta and clinched the next three sets and a berth for himself in the semifinals of the French Open 2020.

The semifinal was no cakewalk, and in Stefanos Tsitsipas he found a Greek warrior who was willing to rebound from being two sets down and challenge the world No. 1.

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When Tsitispas captured sets three and four with some very aggressive stroke play, Djokovic knew there was a very real possibility of his being ousted from the tournament if he did not get his act together right from the word go in the fifth set. He probably recalled that Alexander Zverev had defeated Carreño Busta in the semifinals of the recently concluded US Open after being two sets down and Dominic Thiem had turned the tables on Zverev in the exact same fashion in the summit clash.

Fortunately for Djokovic, he recovered his mojo in the fifth set and went on to capture it with an authoritative 6-1 score, in the process setting up a French Open Final clash with Rafael Nadal for the third time.

A Grand Slam final encounter between the world Nos. 1 and 2 is a mouthwatering treat for even the most laidback of tennis fans. And this one was absolutely irresistible since it was between two reigning tennis legends armed with a plethora of Grand Slam records.

Most fans expected this to be an evenly contested match. However, Nadal had other plans. The 12-time French Open champion was eyeing a record-extending 13th title and a record-equalling 20th Grand Slam trophy. And given the world No. 1’s undefeated stint in the 2020 season (barring the match where he was defaulted), Nadal knew that if he did not attack from the word go, he would probably not be able to defend his French Open title.

And attack he did.

Nadal’s dominance in the first two sets was so comprehensive and so authoritative that it left Djokovic looking like a novice and not a seasoned Grand Slam Champion and world No. 1.

After being battered 0-6, 2-6 in the first two sets, the third set was more about salvaging pride than the historic comeback that Djokovic would have wanted. He couldn’t muster the ammunition needed to stay in the match by winning the third set, but he lost it with a respectable score of 5-7.

Those who watched the match knew that this was Nadal’s finest performance ever and Djokovic’s worst ever.

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Djokovic had been tested in the quarterfinals by Carreño Busta and semifinals by Stefanos Tstitsipas. But this onslaught from a raging Nadal in the summit clash was one that he was totally unprepared for. Djokovic was caught completely off-guard and it took the wind out of his sails. This was the second time in 2020 that the world No. 1 had been made to feel like the World Number None.

The story doesn’t end there though.

At the end of the French Open, Djokovic had a win-loss record of 95 percent in 2020. He had won 37 out of 39 matches played till then – the best record in the season and a testimony to his standing as the world’s top tennis player.

If there’s one thing that Djokovic is known for, it’s resilience. Fans around the world have seen him rallying with a flourish in critical moments of critical matches as well as critical phases of his sports career when his armour was dented.

There’s still more tennis left in 2020 and an equal amount of fire in the belly of the world No. 1. Djokovic fans around the world will be eagerly waiting for him to claim a few more prestigious titles and wrap up the year on a note of victory and celebration.