Not a perfect March for Djokovic, who was blindsided after Indian Wells

by: Peter Bodo | April 07, 2016

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All the world No. 1 was doing when he made those "controversial" comments was looking out for himself and his peers. (AP)

“This year, the start of the season has been probably even better than 2015 in terms of results, and in terms of how I feel,” Novak Djokovic said immediately after he won the Miami Open last week.

But his March wasn’t perfect, despite the two Masters titles and his dazzling 12-0 record.

Djokovic is an 11-time Grand Slam champion and an earnest spokesman for the game, and the 28-year-old Serbian has a growing reputation as an athlete with a social conscience. But he suffered a damaging blow when he was savaged as an unenlightened sexist during the most recent flare-up over equal prize money for women at major tournaments and combined events.

Djokovic was blindsided, and it was deeply unfair.

Just as a refresher, this is what Djokovic said to touch off the hunt for his scalp:

“I understand how much power and energy the WTA and all the advocates for equal prize money have invested in order to reach that. I applaud them for that, I honestly do. They fought for what they deserve and they got it.

"On the other hand, I think that our men's tennis world, ATP world, should fight for more because the stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men's tennis matches.”

Sounds innocuous enough, doesn’t it?  

Once again, the curtain was pulled back on a situation that makes tennis poohbahs look noble and progressive in some eyes, and unfair and pandering in others. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, where nobody bothered to explore: Equal prize money placates activists, makes the game look prosperous on both fronts, and nobody turns off the TV because of it.

But here’s the most salient fact of all, and it’s one that either side might have employed to cut off the conversation at the knees. It’s Indian Wells’ (or Wimbledon’s, or Miami’s) money. They can do whatever they want with it. There were two casualties—(now former) Indian Wells CEO Raymond Moore and Djokovic—in the latest prize-money skirmish. Moore’s comments were monumentally and unfathomably inappropriate; he deserved everything he got, mainly because of his hypocrisy. Moore spent his life—and made a ton of money—having it both ways, as a founding partner and then CEO of the combined, equal-prize money Indian Wells event.

Djokovic made a critical mistake in following Moore so closely into an ideological minefield. It was just too easy to equate his carefully parsed words with those of Moore, or to somehow see them as an endorsement or validation of Moore’s nasty comments. He was made to pay for that, and dearly.

The heart of the equal-prize money battle in tennis is the same as it always has been, and it will be the same if and when one or the other tour tanks. It won’t be settled any time soon because the issue is usually viewed through two very different lenses: the economic lens and the social justice lens.

The economic lens: As the leading ATP player, Djokovic was articulating a financial beef commonly held by his peers. Feel free to lump them all together as chauvinists, but maybe they’re just fighting for a raise, unhappy about having to negotiate for the WTA as well as themselves. It’s a lens, if one that the opposing camp managed to shatter very quickly and replace with a headline-generating social-justice lens. Seen through that lens, the debate is simply about equality in the workplace, women’s rights, gender equality and all that goes with it.

This is no longer an economic discussion. It’s a bitter, ideological battle. Every war, including those of ideas, has innocent casualties. And that’s where we get back to the rubbishing of Djokovic.

As ambassadorial as Djokovic sounds, Djokovic has never really had a great grasp of public relations. He made his second big mistake when, panicked by the onrush of criticism, he made comments about how much he loved and respected women. He blundered into the area of “hormones.” (You wanted to shout, “Stop!”) Billie Jean King, in an unintended flash of humor, aptly called his claim of empathy for the hormonally afflicted “from the Dark Ages.”

King refrained from piling on Djokovic, however. Following a hastily arranged damage-control meeting between herself, Djokovic and Chris Evert, the final chapter in this saga, King said, “My prayer is that most of the guys have daughters. I think that it changes them.”

It was a sensible thing to say, because it underscores the role that self-interest plays in so much of this. And that’s exactly why it seemed so unfair to rake Djokovic over the ideological coals when all he was doing was looking out for himself and his tour peers.

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