Novak Djokovic is sensitive, even when the crowd isn't against him

The confusion was understandable Tuesday night. Novak Djokovic has had enough moments against the world at the US Open and beyond expe...


The confusion was understandable Tuesday night. Novak Djokovic has had enough moments against the world at the US Open and beyond expecting boos even when shooting for the moon equivalent of tennis.

But the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd for that first-round match was actually chanting “Rune” – accentuating the u in the last name of his flashy 18-year-old opponent Holger Rune.

“Obviously you always want to have the crowd behind you, but that’s not always possible, that’s all I can say,” Djokovic said after his 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6 win. -2, 6-1.

Djokovic is a great champion, and in position in this golden age of men’s tennis to win the statistical race by a wide margin, ahead of his measuring sticks Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

But the road to the top has often been bumpy, and he’s made a number of his own potholes, including the one he dug in his last appearance at Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was last year when he defaulted in the fourth round after unintentionally hit a linesman in the throat with a ball which he hit in frustration after losing his serve against Pablo Carreño Busta.

Djokovic was then the No.1 seed and the overwhelming favorite to win the title, just as he is now the No.1 seed and the overwhelming favorite to win the title. But there is more to it and a very different vibe.

Djokovic’s blunder in 2020 arrived at a nearly empty Ashe stadium, devoid of fans due to restrictions linked to the coronavirus pandemic. This year, the stadiums and fields are packed. More than 53,000 came on Tuesday, and it would have been easy to imagine that life had returned to normal without the many supporters wearing masks in the stands and in the aisles.

Another sign of the times: the linesmen are gone. Already absent in 2020 on the outdoor courts, they have been replaced on all courts this year by the automated online judging system which strangely uses a pre-recorded human voice.

Call it a clean slate as Djokovic tries to leave his mark on the game even more indelibly. A Grand Slam is big and deserves to be: only five players have accomplished it in singles in the long history of tennis.

Male stars like Jack Kramer, Roy Emerson, Ken Rosewall, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi never made it. Federer and Nadal surely won’t either.

But Djokovic is close enough to have a taste of the Grand Slam now, having won the first three of four stages in 2021. After Tuesday night’s win, it’s only six games away from joining Don Budge, Maureen Connolly, Rod Laver, Margaret Court and Steffi. Graf on the short list of those who made it.

While the shoulder hampering him at the Tokyo Olympics didn’t seem like an issue, it wasn’t an entirely reassuring start. Rune, a skilled teenager from Denmark whose childhood hero was Federer, was making his Grand Slam debut. Former world number 1 among juniors, Rune is a dynamic player with explosive power and infectious energy. He didn’t just win the second set. He also drew crowds to his side at Ashe Stadium, the world’s largest tower-level tennis venue with its five levels and 23,771 seats.

Although Djokovic looked frustrated and out of rhythm as Rune equalized the game with one set apiece, Djokovic never looked really shaken and was under no threat down the home stretch.

Rune, who was playing his first game in the best of five sets, started having leg cramps early in the third set and grimaced and hobbled between the points. He couldn’t jump into his serve, unable to crush Djokovic’s drop shots and groundstrokes in the corners.

We suspect that Rune has a bright future (and not because he looks like a young Leonardo DiCaprio). But Tuesday’s last two sets were only 51 minutes long, less time than it took for Rune to win the second set of 58 minutes.

“Unfortunately my fitness let me down,” Rune said. “I knew if I was to win I really had to fight for every point. With my body at this point, it was impossible.

Djokovic, despite Rune’s long affinity for Federer, played a mentoring role. They trained together earlier this season, and when they met for a handshake at the net, it turned into something more akin to a conversation. This continued in the locker room later after a disappointed Rune walked off the pitch in tears, his towel between his teeth.

While it’s easy to forget at this point, Djokovic also struggled with his endurance on the pitch, only having resolved the issue in 2010 and 2011 after switching to a gluten-free diet. But he turned out to be a longtime champion.

“I struggled with injuries and retirements early in my career,” said Djokovic. “That’s why I can understand Holger, what he’s going through. We just had a chat in the locker room. It is a moment of emotion for him. It is not easy to see. He is really sad. I understand that. I have been through this. I just told him he was behaving extremely well. He didn’t want to stop. I thought he was going to stop at the end of the third. He just continued with dignity, finished the game. He definitely deserved my respect, the respect of a lot of people. He’s still very, very young.

Respect is a word that resonates with Djokovic. He didn’t always get the respect he deserved in New York City, where he won three titles. The crowd became particularly ugly in 2015, when he defeated Federer in a four-set final, encouraging Djokovic’s mistakes and double faults, and interrupting his rhythm.

In an interview the next day, Djokovic told me that when they chanted “Roger” he made up his mind to pretend they were singing for him instead.

He didn’t seem to trust such mind games on Tuesday night, and it must be said that “Ruuuuuune” in cavernous Ashe Stadium looks a lot like “Booooooo”.

Even Rune was confused and only learned for sure after the match what was being sung. “When I heard that I was happy, because I didn’t understand it in the game,” he said. “It was a crazy crowd, the best I have ever felt in my life.”

Who wouldn’t revolve around a charismatic underdog, a young player twirling his arms in pleasure after hitting a winner against the best in the world? At some point in this tournament, you’re hoping the New York crowd will take in the full measure of the tennis feat Djokovic pursues and what he sacrificed to become this extraordinary player.

He seemed to be conserving his energy and emotions on Tuesday, and he may have to dip into his reserves over the next 12 days.

Self-control is not his trademark. Witness his shattering tirade in Tokyo last month when he lost the bronze medal match to Carreño.

But he took a break from the tour after that to refresh his mind and attitude. He doesn’t ignore the elephant in the room during press conferences.

“As always, you have tons of expectations and pressure from the entire tennis community, including myself,” he said Tuesday night. “Obviously I would like to win myself, go far, take the title and make history. It’s definitely something that inspires me. But I focus on trying to be the best version of myself every day. I know it sounds like a cliché, but there is great power in being present and working mentally and emotionally on the present moment and trying to deal with it in a way that would benefit you.

He remains a researcher and a handyman, programmed to optimize at the risk of trying to fix what cannot be broken. But until proven guilty, he’s the best big-game player in the game and whatever the audience is shouting from above, in the arena, Djokovic is only six games away from one of the ultimate prizes. Sport.

Next stop on Thursday: a second round match with 121st Tallon Griekspoor.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Novak Djokovic is sensitive, even when the crowd isn't against him
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