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Novak Djokovic's U.S. Open default is latest issue in turbulent career



If a peeved Rafael Nadal had yanked a tennis ball from his pocket before a changeover and smacked it inadvertently toward a lineswoman, that ball would have traveled with a delicious spin until it stopped safely shy of the person, whereupon it would have practiced the utmost manners. It even might have tried to rub its fuzz on her cheek to improve her day.

Even in the lavish glories of the Big Three, life on Earth is just bumpier for some, right from the beginning.

Seriously, if somebody had told you the preposterous truth that one of the three had defaulted in a freakish U.S. Open in a freaky year in which he had a 26-0 match record. … If somebody had said one of the three took a U.S. Open that looked almost earmarked for him and departed jarringly on the middle Sunday and left the kids to parse and divvy up the prizes. … If someone said one of the three had suffered such bum luck that top-10 player Alexander Zverev had said, “If he would have hit it anywhere else, if it would have landed anywhere else, we are talking about a few inches, he would have been fine.” … And if someone had said one of the three then wrote an Instagram post proclaiming, “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 a human being … ”

Yeah, your first two guesses don’t count.

No, he doesn’t need to do all of that stuff in that sentence he wrote. He needs to avoid whacking any balls during any changeovers, and that’s all. He long since has helped Federer and Nadal establish a three-man reign of diplomacy atop the men’s game, and Djokovic’s on-court demeanor long since has qualified as exemplary, deluging and overwhelming his dwindled hiccups. This has happened amid crowds often jerky in their sneering and sniveling at his triumphs while they allege his robbery of goodies from the beloved other two, a reality Djokovic has handled with gobs of grace. (For a fine turn of decency, catch his muted, empathetic reaction to winning that winding donnybrook of a 2019 Wimbledon final against both Federer and a disrespectful crowd.) He is every bit a part of the trio that has ushered the game well beyond its brat days, those ancient times that should have featured default ceremonies with ugly default trophies and howling default music routinely for, say, John McEnroe, whose fourth-round default from heroic chair umpire Gerry Armstrong at the 1990 Australian Open comes to mind first, Grand Slam-wise, with the Djokovic lunacy.

It’s just that among that trio, Djokovic has always held down third place in smoothness.

From the get-go, Federer hailed from Switzerland, which has breathed peace for so long you can feel it in the air upon arrival and emergence to the first sidewalk. Nadal hailed from Mallorca — Mallorca! — in a country (Spain) that has its divisions similar to other countries we know (cough), but that had just sprouted with all its verve and grace from a historical horror. On any list of nominees for Best Sporting Event, Ever, its 1992 Olympics in Barcelona would rate.

Djokovic, born in then-Yugoslavia and hailing from now-Serbia, grew up in a region in collapse and at war, and even though some Federer fans who send emails to reporters often seem ready to claim Djokovic caused that crisis, he did not cause that crisis, having turned 4 around the time of its outset. Rising out of a broken state had to present untold obstacles of many layers beyond the obvious. He arrived in the tennis floodlights as Federer and Nadal had commanded them for a while while taking over ownership of hearts around the planet, and he resided at No. 3 for so long he could have paid taxes there.

Then, as he has butted in so implausibly and impressively, and reached just about their level of eminence, and resided in Monaco (never mind those taxes), he has tried to match the other two in ambassadorship, with his attempts plenty commendable even as the gears of his trying do seem to grind until mistaken for inauthenticity.

Time after time, he embodies the line Sean Penn crafted upon receiving a second Oscar: “I want to be very clear that I do know how hard I make it to appreciate me, often.” The grinding has been particularly graphic in this grinding year. Djokovic tried to help out in a pandemic by conducting a risky exhibition tournament at which several players and others, including him and his wife, contracted the novel coronavirus. He spoke against vaccinations. He spearheaded a move toward a new players’ association with vagueness and incoherence. He’s sitting on 17 Grand Slam titles while the other two sit on 20 (Federer) and 19 (Nadal), and then just when he had won five of the previous seven and appeared primed to nudge up right next to them as they sat out this U.S. Open, here comes this silliness plus clunkiness to equal scariness.

Think of it now: He still could become the greatest player ever and the only standing No. 1 ever defaulted from a Grand Slam. It’s a combination one might call Djokovician if that were pronounceable.

Surely everyone but the fringey-ist fringe will find the default reasonable. Surely everyone but those barking at the moon values the Grand Slam rule protecting those working around the courts and nods at seeing it applied. There’s always a whiff of refreshment in a world of double-standard rules when the rules apply coldly to superstar players at starry events. The New York Times overheard Djokovic himself saying to tournament referee Soeren Friemel, during their on-court conversation, “I know it’s tough for you whatever call you make.”

It’s just that from among the three ambassadors, the two naturals and the one who tries so gamely, the impossible absurdity that happened Sunday in Flushing Meadow could have happened only to one, the one whose soaring flight always seems to lead the trio in clouds and turbulence.



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