Three Stars, Three Controversies

Thursday, November 07, 2013 /by

I guess that with Rafael Nadal having clinched the year-end No. 1 ranking before the round-robin portion of the ATP World Tour Finals is over, the three uber-elite players (Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer) needed to do something to keep the media fires stoked.

In this, they succeeded. Perhaps better than they wished.

In the past few days, all three became embroiled in controversy of one kind or another in the public forum. It’s a pretty extraordinary time when the three top dogs must fight to top each other in the provocative headline department.

So let’s make this a super “They Said What?” post, and look at the three issues in order, starting with the mildest of the three controversies:

“I think at this point it’s very mental, just making sure I don’t get too negative on myself because of the loss today. It was against Novak after all. It’s not against some journeyman. So I feel like it was very close, but then again, didn’t make it. It’s a positive that it was three sets. Don’t really care. But I just have to make sure I stay positive right now in my mind, which I am. . . Obviously it’s been a tough season overall. So I guess I’m just rattled at times, with my level of play consistently.”—Roger Federer, following his second three-set loss to Novak Djokovic in less than a week.

To me, this was the first full-blown confession by Federer that he’s in midst of a late-career crisis. You can tell, because the quote (even in the somewhat abbreviated version) sounds like Federer is talking to himself—or lying on his back on a leather couch, staring at the ceiling in a therapist’s office.

It always comes to this, or something very close to it. I don’t care if it’s Rod Laver, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, or Roger Federer; facing the reality of a declining game is always a heart-and-gut wrenching experience, a “this doesn’t happen to people like me” moment. 

Nobody likes to see a great player founder, but once he does, and the media’s collective unconscious determines that the time has come to begin the death watch, it’s extremely difficult for a player to keep his equilibrium—to remain cool and confident, balanced in outlook, and positive. The pressure just snowballs. It’s amazing how quickly clarity yields to confusion.

But at the end of the day (as Federer noted), this was, after all, Novak Djokovic—the defending champion and recently deposed ATP No. 1. Why so gloomy? As is always the case, sooner or later the truth comes out.

The only solution to the crisis of aging is to play through it, striving to enjoy and take pleasure from the challenge. The other option is to quit the game cold to avoid the pain and confusion (in the manner of Bjorn Borg). But the latter is just escapism.

Let’s see what the rest of the World Tour Finals brings for Federer; if he survives the round-robin (he’s still in with a shot after having beaten Richard Gasquet in straights) it will help him feel better—if not great—about this difficult and emotionally tumultuous year. 

***

“It’s very bad news that we got for him, and for me, for all of us who are close to him. But I think it’s just not bad news for him, it proves again that this system of WADA and anti-doping agency does not work.”—Novak Djokovic, commenting on the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s decision not to repeal the suspension of his friend and countryman Viktor Troicki.

So let me get this straight: Djokovic is anti-WADA now because his pal Troicki’s appeal was only modestly successful? (Troicki's suspension for refusing to take a blood test was reduced from 18 to 12 months.)

While I admire Djokovic for sticking up for his friend, his reaction to the CAS decision is simply wrong-headed, and his rather elaborate comments on the subject are astonishingly presumptuous. 

“I’m not saying that it’s completely not his (Troicki’s) fault,” Djokovic went on. “But the way it was is that he had a medical pass where he was fainting, if he feels bad when he provides the blood test. He asked if it’s possible to avoid providing blood test that day and he would come the next day—not because he wanted to hide anything, he just felt bad.”

And exactly how does Djokovic know all this, given that he wasn’t in the room with the Doping Control Officer and Troicki?

I doubt that the officer told him, so it must have been his buddy Troicki. Did it never occur to Djokovic that Troicki might have been desperately trying to spin his story in any way—perhaps including outright lying—to beat the rap? That Troicki couldn’t very well tell CAS officials one story and his bosom buddy a different one, if indeed there were two stories to tell? 

Personally, I have some trouble buying the idea that a strapping, 6’3” professional athlete in the full bloom of health is so squeamish that he can’t give blood. Nor can I believe that he was unaware of the potential danger in flaunting the rules. It’s entirely possible, though, that he never imagined that ducking out of the test could cause him such a huge problem.

What happened to Troicki was a manifestation of the drug-testing protocol working exactly as it should. That is, same rules for all, zero tolerance for cheats or excuse making. Troicki should have known that once he declined to take the test, he left himself open to anything. And it doesn’t help that the only defense he was able to mount was the familiar “he-said, she-said” one that never proves anything. 

Perhaps all that helps explain why Troicki’s chorus of defenders is a very small—if very famous—one. The reality is that not you, not I, not even the great former No. 1 and six-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic, really knows the truth about how and why Troicki decided to skip that blood test. 

***

“It’s nothing personal against Rafa or against [Nadal’s uncle and coach] Toni. We all know, players and umpire, that Toni is always trying to help Rafa. That’s normal. That’s part of the game. But when it’s too much, it’s too much.”Stanislas Wawrinka, explaining why he complained to the umpire about coaching from the stands during the second set of his match with Rafael Nadal (Wawrinka lost).

We’ve had this sort of controversy before, but the sour complaints usually come from a player a few classes below the star in the cross-hairs. This one is unusual because Wawrinka, ranked No. 8 in the world, is among the elite.

The striking thing about this criticism is how fundamentally deferential it is—as if Wawrinka is taking special pains not to be mistaken for either a whiner or an embittered, envious rival (in 12 meetings, Wawrinka hasn’t won so much as a set from Nadal). And that makes his criticism sound more reasonable and valid than it might otherwise. 

Interestingly, Wawrinka’s main point appeared to be that the umpire was reluctant to issue a second warning, which (if I understand this complicated point-penalty system correctly) would have triggered a point penalty. The implication is that the official didn’t want to offend or embarrass the top-ranked player, or cause a scene or initiate a controversy.

“Today I didn’t agree with the umpire that he didn’t tell him something, or he didn’t give him second warning just because it was Rafa,” Wawrinka added. “We all see. I was there. Before every point, he was trying to coach him. That just what happened. Again, it’s nothing against Rafa or Toni. That’s in the rules. Normally the umpire should have done something.”

If you watch the video clip from Wawrinka’s presser, you can’t help but be impressed by how convincingly he laid out his criticism. What, if anything, will Nadal say in response? The only thing I’m sure of is that the issue will not go away, at least not over the next few days.

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