by Pete Bodo
I know that the Djokovic family is relatively new to all this tennis stuff. That makes Novak's emergence as a player who can already be included in any discussion of the most gifted men ever to swing a racquet that much more impressive. But the sudden inclusion of his brothers, Marko and Djordje, in Project Djokovic raises some red flags similar to the ones that popped up when Djokovic's parents began showing up at tournaments wearing t-shirts emblazoned with their son's visage.
You've all read how Novak's brother Marko, No. 869 in the world, received a wild card into the Dubai tournament. The other two wild cards went to Omar Awadhy, a currently unranked 30-year-old from Dubai (a nod to the local talent) and Sergei Bubka, the No. 190 25-year old whose father, the pole vaulter, is an Olympic Games icon. Given the company, Marko Djokovic isn't all that far out of place, although the direct acceptance cutoff for Dubai was No. 93 (Andreas Beck was the last man under the wire), almost 800 places above where Marko sits.
Marko, the middle brother, missed about 10 months in 2011 because of a wrist injury. But his career-high ranking has only been No. 628 and he's already 20 years old—details that suggest he'll have a tough row to hoe as a pro, unless he settles into a comfortable life as wingman/practice partner/lead blocker for Novak, sort of like Thomas Blake was for James. And who knows, I wouldn't discount the possibility of Marko and Novak Djokovic playing some tour doubles. Is there a tournament promoter on this earth who would deny Marko a wild card into any event if Novak suggested it might influence his decision to play said event?
It's a good problem for the Djokovics to have, but it's still a problem. And Marko's recent adventure in Dubai shed some light on it. He lost in the first round to Andrey Golubev, 6-3, 6-2, after which Marko tried to explain his dilemma to reporters: "I played qualifiers and Futures and was coming back from the injury, and it was really tough. I had to fight for every point. So this is the big difference when they play against me and then when I see them playing against somebody else. Maybe sometimes I have an advantage because maybe they get scared. You know, Novak's brother. . .I have to beat him. Like Golubev today, he started so-so in the beginning."
The kid certainly is in a tough spot. His assessment of Golubev's slow start is honest, because it's weird for a tour player to have to beat a player who's in the draw solely because of his name, and whose brother happens to be the big dog. But I think Marko misreading the situation when he suggests that the players on the minor curcuits make him "fight for every point" and play differently against him than against typical opponents because of his blood lines.
Fighting bitterly for every point is what life is all about on the Futures and Challenger circuits. It's a pure, dog-eat-dog proposition. Ask anyone who's done it. Down there, being named Djokovic actually means much less than it does up on the main tour, where the spectre of losing to the wrong Djokovic puts enormous pressure on anyone Marko might have to face. So unless Marko can take a few wild cards and use them to make an enormous leap in the rankings, he'd really be best served if he disappeared into the minor leagues and tried to kick and claw and scratch his way up to the ATP level. That is, if he is serious about becoming a player in his own right, and is determined to resist the lure of instant, reflected glory.
One guy who was once in a very similar situation is John McEnroe's youngest brother, Patrick. You know, the former U.S. Davis Cup captain and current head of USTA player development. In the book we wrote together, Hardcourt Confidential, McEnroe talked about how he lost in seven straight tournaments in which he was entered as a wild card simply because he was the brother of John. In fact, Pat is pretty sure he holds the record for most wild cards accepted in one year. And all it did for him was convince him that "wild cards were a form of poison." Down deep, Pat felt guilty taking them, and receiving them enabled him to defer the big decisions he had to make about his career, and what qualities it might take for him to fight his way onto the main tour on merit.
Contemplating Marko's dilemma, Novak said the other day: "It's hard because the people compare him to me. . . I think as soon as he manages to control his thoughts and, you know, focus on his own career, I think he's going to be good. He has potential obviously, and it's in the blood."
Therefore, let the blood speak. And it speaks most eloquently where it flows most freely from the brow, down in the minor leagues of the game.