Overtime thrillers, the catch of the year (twice) and a season obituary – this is what you came for.
There is definitely something in the air this year, and it’s not just the virus.
And somehow, the two bugs appear to have conspired and laid low the World’s numero uno tennis star, playing tag-team on his mind and body.
Unlike the established Chinese credentials of the body virus, the mind bug appeared to have Melbournian origins. It made its first appearance earlier this year at the Australian Open.
As Novak Djokovic kept disappearing off the court with increasing frequency at crucial moments of matches, the explanations for the medical breaks appeared to be harder and harder to come by. He did it in the semi-finals against Roger Federer and in the finals against Dominic Thiem.
“I didn’t have any injuries and it was very strange to me because I’ve done things pretty much the same as I always do. My energy completely collapsed,” he said. When pressed, he maintained he was suffering from an ailment he “can’t really explain”.
In an age when health issues, whether they be of the body or the mind are handled with kid gloves, quizzical eyebrows about these absences were raised almost apologetically. The timing of the breaks, at crucial points in the match, some surmised, appeared to be strategic.
The diehards went ballistic. Djokovic picked up his 17th Grand Slam title.
Then the virus hit. It started in Wuhan as a drizzle, the cloud responsible for the precipitation – either natural or lab manufactured, depending on who you ask.
But the mystery of its origin was soon a moot point, as it took the world by storm and quickly turned into a tsunami with pandemic proportions. The entire world, sporting and otherwise, went into lockdown.
The first to emerge, swinging his racquet and wallet in defiance, was Novak Djokovic.
He announced the Adria Tour, a series of tournaments where players would not maintain social distancing, fans would fill the stands as they did before, ball boys and girls would be in attendance.
Naysayers like Patrick McEnroe advised Djokovic: “You’ve got to be aware of who you are and leading by example.” He added that it would be ‘hard to imagine’ another top player, like Rafael Nadal, Federer or Serena Williams holding a similar tour.
Djokovic, having convinced some of the best players in the world to go along with this show of defiance – Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev, Grigor Dimitrov and Borna Coric among them, hit back at the critics: “We’ve had better numbers compared to some other countries. Of course, lives have been lost and that’s horrible to see, in the region and worldwide. But life goes on.”
Nick Kyrgios labelled it a “boneheaded decision.” It was reticent by his lofty standards of invective.
At some level, it seemed to have descended into a classic face-off between the less impacted Central and Eastern Europe bloc versus an infected West. Serbia and Croatia had undoubtedly been relatively lightly impacted, but as The Guardian adroitly pointed out, ‘many of the people invited to the celebrations had arrived from less fortunate places.’
The show kicked off at Belgrade in front of 4000 ecstatic fans. By the time it arrived at Zadar in Croatia a week later, it had turned into a full-blown party. As the lockdown rusted players shed their excess hair, striped pyjama bottoms and the annoying omnipresence of family members in unfamiliar close proximity, they also shook away their infection fears on court and off it.
The on-court rebels thus far seen hugging each other and linking arms, were spotted on social media, indulging in off-court revel at a nightclub.
Fate was being sorely tempted. And she struck back.
First Gregor Dimitrov tested positive. Borna Coric followed the day after. Djokovic joined them in due course. A contrite World No. 1 went into quarantine with his family and fortunately emerged in reasonable shape.
Djokovic’s ultra-fit body may have bounced back quickly from the impact of the virus, but 2020 was far from done messing with the Serbian’s mind.
Fast forward to August. The U.S. Open opened in a bio-bubble. Football and cricket among other sports had already embraced the ‘new normal’, but tennis’ challenge was to pull it off in the country that had been the worst impacted by the pandemic, still raging through the streets of New York.
Nadal, Federer and several other top players declined to travel to the United States in this situation. Consequently, the 18th Grand Slam appeared to have Djokovic’s name already inscribed on it even before Flushing Meadows opened the doors of Arthur Ashe stadium.
The sinister second bug was, however, once again lurking in the shadows.
Days before the start of the U.S. Open, Djokovic abruptly resigned as the Head of the Player’s Council of the ATP and announced the formation of the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA), for all practical purposes a slap in the face of the ATP.
It met with mixed reactions. Nadal, Federer and most of the top players declined to join and said this wasn’t the best moment for such a move. Djokovic’s assertion that “The main point of the players association is not that we want to fight ATP, ITF, Grand Slams, or anybody else,” did not seem to have convinced the doubters, who were many.
And then came the moment that stunned the tennis world.
Djokovic’s fourth-round match against Pablo Carreno Busta at Flushing Meadows turned into a dramatic encounter, but for reasons that had little to do with what was going on within the rails. Frustrated at losing a crucial point and a game, the World No. 1 took the extra ball out of his pocket and lightly hit it away with his racquet.
In what PG Wodehouse would describe as a ‘concatenation of circumstances,’ the ball went straight on to a line judge’s throat, leaving her gasping for breath. She recovered, but the damage had been done.
It was indubitably an accident and no one suggested otherwise, but the rules of tennis are very clear. If a ball is hit with intent even if the target or the injury is unintentional, the penalty is disqualification.
Suddenly, Djokovic’s U.S. Open trophy and the extra Grand Slam title that would bring him closer to Nadal and Federer had port-keyed onto Dominic Thiem’s mantelpiece with a burst of speed Harry Potter would have been proud of.
One would have thought the invisible spoiler would now take a much-deserved break. Alas, that was not to be. This week it was back playing with his mind at the Italian Open in Rome.
During a second-round match against Salvatore Caruso, the umpire was taken aback when Djokovic complained about crowd noise during the game. Now that is not an unusual problem for the officials to face in the beautiful marble-clad sunken stadium that crowns the playing surface of stunning red clay.
In this instance, however, the official occupying the chair appeared to be genuinely at his wits end about how to handle the situation.
The only people inside the stadium were coaches and others working at the tournament. “Which ones?” the umpire asked Djokovic, trying to figure out who exactly it was among the non-existent spectators who was bothering him.
Pat came Djokovic‘s reply: “There are ten people in the stands.” The bemused official wordlessly signalled for the match to continue.
The game went on. Djokovic won 6-3, 6-2. As I write this, he is on course for a possible showdown with Nadal in the finals of the ATP 1000 tournament that both have won multiple times.
All eyes are however on the immediate future beyond the tennis court.
There are 14 weeks left before 2020 can once again be referred to in terms of perfect vision and not as the worst nightmare of the 21st century. And one shudders at the possibilities that remain for more bizarre stories to emerge from the universe that Novak Djokovic’s mind currently inhabits.
Reliable sources have it that scientists at NASA have been put on high alert for the next time they decode a signal that reads: ‘Novak calling planet Earth.’