Serbian Jimbo

by: Peter Bodo | April 30, 2008

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I haven't had much occasion to write about Novak Djokovic lately, but a few people did solicit my opinion on the way he pulled out of his semifinal battle with Roger Federer, complaining of a sore throat and dizziness, while trailing by a set in Monte Carlo last week. Then, thanks to El Jon Wertheim, we all saw that clip of an irritated Roger Federer chiding Djokovic's parents for being a little too vocal in protesting what turned out to be an accurate call against their boy, Nole.

Don't you just love seeing The Mighty Fed in that rarest  of all modes, disgruntlement? El Jon suggested giving him bonus points for that spontaneous and entirely justified reaction, and I'd add a few more for that clay-kicking gesture. Next thing you know, TMF will be impersonating some major league baseball manager, belly-to-belly and eyeball-to-eyeball with an umpire, kicking dirt on the poor official's shoes, firing spittle as he argues his case with a vein popping out of his forehead.

As if. . .

Nole Anyway, so what is it with Novak? There's clearly a pattern emerging in his retirements against top rivals, as Kamakshi Tandon's analysis makes abundantly clear. It's both a futile and inviting issue to contemplate. My own attitude, which was partly behind my decision to ignore the (non-)story, is that I don't really give a dang what happens once the first ball is put into play; a guy retires with ailments or injuries that aren't obvious, he just gets the "L". No asterisk, no story, we move on.

In a way it's like a breaking-news doping story. I don't delve into what I can't know or substantiate, because all I can do then is exercise my prejudices toward one or the other party. But in doping cases there is hard evidence and that takes precedence over all other factors. I accept the science-based  ruling until such time as the ruling is overturned or changed by the powers that be  - and then I accept that.

What is noteworthy is that Djokovic was pretty well positioned to make a good run on clay at Monte Carlo, as evidenced by his earlier wins over Andy Murray and  surprise quarterfinalist Sam Querrey. He said early in the tournament, "I haven't won a major event on clay, so I always have highest possible intentions and goals any tournament I play. I think I have enough quality to beat the best players in the world - even on this surface. I had more time than last year to prepare, to rest and to work on some things, particular things for clay, and hopefully it's going to pay off in the tournaments."

Given that rosy analysis, combined with Djokovic's admission that his road to the semifinal was not very taxing or stressful, it's hard to imagine that his was a retirement of convenience. Head games?  Nah, not unless your talking about his own head. Just how does throwing in the towel because you feel dizzy and had a sore throat for a few days give you some kind of devious psychological advantage over a guy who just got sent home early from work, which consisted of beating up on you?

The most likely explanation is that Djokovic's immune system goes haywire; sirens go off and all sorts of red lights start flashing when he's in a particularly stressful situation, which is not to say that he's inventing or lying about his physical condition. It just tells you that some particle of discomfort, perhaps abetted by nerves, suddenly swells to the size of the Blarney Stone. And hey, the Blarney Stone does exist, and it's heavy.

It's impossible to know what's in Djokovic's head during matches in which his body persuades him that he'd better quit, but we have a pretty good idea of what does not go on: No aspect of his being is screaming, You've got to finish this match, suckah! We also know what's going on in there when he's kicking back in the press interview room, or otherwise out of combat. He's a very ambitious young guy, dying to prove his mettle for a host of reasons, including his desire to represent his native Serbia in the best possible light. It's pretty clear that Djokovic doesn't believe that Top Five status of the kind enjoyed by David Ferrer or Nikolay Davydenko is going to cut it for him, either personally or as an ambassador-at-large.

For some time now, Djokovic has been declaring his intention to catch and even surpass Federer and Rafael Nadal, with pronouncements seemingly unleavened by the customary prudence of newcomers. That approach has made many of us respect Djokovic's healthy disregard for the pecking order; others see his words tainted by arrogance, and lack of respect for the accomplishments and talents of his rivals.  Most of us fall into one of two camps: those who increasingly see Djokovic as an aggressive, imperious young dude who takes himself way too seriously (he's currently the pro most likely to end up talking about himself in the third person), and those who are willing to forgive him for having an excessive amount of what might be called youthful impetuosity, exacerbated at times by an insufficient command of nuanced language. What can you expect, the Grand Slam tongues are not his own.

Anybody who lived through the Jimmy Connors era can be forgiven for responding to Djokovic's "controversial" comments with a shrug and the observation, He reminds me of a well-mannered version of Jimbo. In fact, Djokovic may be an appropriately muted, European version of that American barbarian. But you always had the feeling that the only weight on Jimmy's shoulders (Oedipal ghosts are, of course, weightless) was that of his hair back in those Prince Valiant days. He had not a care in the world, other than how he was going to do this to Rod Laver, or that to John Newcombe and Bjorn Borg.

It strikes me that Djokovic is carrying more baggage and not just conscious of it, but hyper-conscious. He's dying to carry it ably, in order to make his family and countrymen proud in a way that would carry none of those vaguely depressing caveats, like, He did incredibly well. . .for a guy from Serbia.

Also, you'll remember that Connors was one of those individuals who demonstrated that pretty much anyone can describe himself as an "outsider", and reap benefits as well as the censures. Djokovic is similar, but his justifications even more powerful. Jimbo's status as an outsider rested on the fact that he grew up "on the wrong side of the tracks" (even though his mother, Gloria, was so in the thick of the tennis mainstream that she dated Chris Evert's father, Jimmy). Djokovic grew up off the tennis grid in Serbia, and he popped onto the tour when it was utterly dominated and locked up by Federer and Nadal. They are his versions of Connors's establishment bugaboos, Stan Smith and Ken Rosewall.

One critical similarity between Djokovic and Connors is that both have been accused of being lousy sports who did a fair amount of manipulation in their drive for success. For Connors, the accusations were based on his attempts to intimidate officials and opponents, and his "ducking" of the top players by refusing to play the main, WCT tour early in his career. The complaints against Djokovic are similar: he doesn't sufficiently "respect" Federer and Nadal; he "ducks" out of big matches against the best players by succumbing to mystery ailments. After all, there is no alternative tour, like there was back in Connors' heyday.

So Djokovic is loosely following in the footprints of Connors and any other player who can claim to have done things "My way." Like Connors, Djokovic has circled the (family) wagons and keeps his own counsel, although he has nothing like Connors's siege mentality. Djokovic also has a much better grasp of public relations and basic decorum than Jimbo ever did. This sense that you have to figure it out all by yourself, with such an enormous amount at stake, can become oppressive. It creates pressure, and pressure always seeks an outlet. If denied, the pressure shuts down the machine.

Djokovic doesn't have an insane number of points to defend during the clay-court swing; he lost in the third round at Monte Carlo last  year, but his win at Estoril is coming off the rolls. Then he's got two quarters (Rome and Hamburg) to duplicate, along with his Roland Garros semifinal. He's within striking distance of his rivals, and making good on some predictions that once struck many as borderline delusional. It's gut-check time for Djokovic, and that's enough to make anyone dizzy.

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