Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Tuesday Tirade: ‘The Future of Tennis’

by Craig Hickman

Novak Djokovic has achieved some noteworthy results of late, winning TMS Miami, the biggest event outside of the Slams, and two other small titles, including his first on clay. Analysts have anointed him the Future of Tennis and the Youngster Most Likely to Challenge Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the top ranking. Given his recent run and his irrefutable talent, these declarations, albeit premature, aren't exactly farfetched.

Consequently, I find myself compelled to dirty my kitchen by writing about him. That's right: I don't like him. If you're a fan of his, I applaud you. We all see in people what we see, and sometimes we overlook the unsavory in favor of the positive. That's all good. But I try to see people, myself included, in all our complexity. To do any less robs us of our humanity.

I don't like the Djoke because I simply cannot get past his blatant and admitted abuse of the rules to defeat his so-called friend, Frenchman Gael Monfils, in the first round of the US Open in 2005. Some say his injury break after injury break after injury break and that melodramatic, breathless fallout on the verge of losing the decisive set can be attributed to youth. I say it's a revelation of his character. A player who exhibits questionable sportsmanship and lack of fair play (against a so-called friend, no less) in order to win by any means necessary is just not a person I want to "reign" over the sport.

He also tanks sets during his matches (see the Estoril final for his latest tank job), disrespecting his opponents and the fans who came to see a competition, not to witness a player play opossum, once again telling us all he'll do whatever he needs to do to win a match, no matter what.

I don't like players who play dirty. Leave that mess on the playgrounds of youth. It doesn't belong on the center courts of professional tennis.

And speaking of winning by any means, check this out.

The Djoke also talks a lot of shit. That doesn't usually endear anyone to me unless it's clear he doesn't take himself that seriously. Novak is serious as a heart attack. Or his respiratory distress. Oh, wait, that's all behind him now thanks to a surgical repair. At least that's what he claimed after outlasting Guillermo Canas in the Miami final. Yet, already this clay-court season, he has said on at least two occasions that he's suffering from breathing problems again. As an excuse for a choking effort against David Ferrer in Monte-Carlo? As a way to psyche out his next opponent in Portugal? Which is it, Novak? Are your breathing woes behind you or not? And who can forget his brazen remarks about being in control of his match against Rafael Nadal in the Roland Garros quarterfinals last year before retiring after dropping the first two sets? I don't remember him breaking Rafa's serve even once.

Still, the young Serb can play tennis. Perhaps he'll become the Next Big Thing afterall. Perhaps he'll even apologize at some point for his shenanigans in Flushing Meadows. And stop tanking sets. And talking shit. But I doubt it. Especially the apologize and tanking and talking shit parts.

So I caution anointing him the Future of Tennis for three reasons:

1) I don't like the Djoke, so I hope he's a flash in the pan.

2) He appears prone to a recurrent back injury based upon his concave-backed service motion. Ask the Dutchman Sjeng Schalken, recently retired, or American Taylor Dent--will he ever be back from back surgery?--how a contorted service motion can wreak havoc on a tennis career. Make no mistake, I don't wish injury upon anyone, whether I like him or not, but unless Novak has super-strong lower back muscles...

3) But most importantly, I don't like the double-edged sword of hype, which my fave suffers from to this day. Andy Roddick was hyped as the Future of Tennis, as was entirely understandable given his early-career results, characterized by a display of true grit. But when he didn't deliver as hyped, he developed a fanbase (and make no mistake, these are fan(atic)s in the negative sense) of unfair detractors. Quiet as it's kept, Roddick didn't even believe the hype, despite many cries to the contrary. And this is how I know he didn't: In 2003 when he became No. 1 in the world, he honestly didn't believe that he deserved to be there, despite his historic hard-court run that year. Which is exactly why he conceded the top ranking so easily to Raja, whom he didn't even have to play him to do so. It's no surprise that 2003 was the last time Andy has been able to muster the courage to defeat his nemesis.

But what's more, the hype Andy didn't even believe haunts him like a haint. Because we know that he knows that he can't get back on top; his window of opportunity has closed. Sure, sure. Maybe he's got another push left in him and he may win another Slam, maybe two, and regain the No. 1 spot for a few weeks. As a fan, I certainly want him to. But fan or not, I have pretty good eyesight. Roddick's time as the Future of Tennis never arrived--I repeat: he didn't feel worthy--and the window of opportunity has closed.

If Novak is indeed the Future of Tennis, let's wait and watch and see. And if you are his fan and really want to see him succeed, then consider keeping your predictions to yourself. The pressure doesn't do anybody any good. Especially when one believes the hype. As does the Djoke.

If he's not careful, he could fall from grace quicker than you can say Andy Roddick.


oddman said...

Awesome, Craig! I totally agree, and you've articulated what's been bothering me about Djoker - I knew I didn't much care for him but couldn't put a finger on just what that was. The Rafa thing bothered me, but there was more to it too.

oddman said...

I wish Andy would disregard all the press about him, good and bad. Feel like he should insulate himself more from all the yammering. Altho made out to be a 'dumb jock', he doesn't seem like that to me, he seems very sharp, kind, and sensitive, especially to negative press. He's a great kid, in my book, and a great tennis player too - number 3 in the world!

Craig Hickman said...

Thanks, oddman. Like I said, I felt compelled to comment on the youngster.

As for Roddick, I agree. He's sensitive for sure. I don't know if he knows how to shut it all out, though. Not so sure that anybody does, really. Some players use negative press to inspire them while positive press is disregarded. Others can't get enough themselves and devour it all, though it doesn't negatively affect their game. See: Roger Federer.

Andy is a very young 24. If his body holds up and he wishes to have a long career, it's quite possible that he could mature into a player that at least achieves his goal of winning a Wimbledon crown and a Davis Cup title for the US.

oddman said...

Re: some players devouring it all, I see anyone can post messages to Fed on his website - the guestbook. Man, some of those comments are hilarious! Some are very anti-Fed, others tell him what to do - I just can't believe he would read all that. No way.

Craig Hickman said...

Haven't been on that site in at least a year.

oddman said...

I wouldn't normally go there myself, but I read about it somewhere else, so popped in for a look and a chuckle.
Back to Novak, the youngster has shown some nice tennis lately - I'll give him that. Maybe as he matures, he'll quit the crap. One can wait and see.

Craig Hickman said...

And that, my friend, is about the size of it.

Anonymous said...

The out of control faking of injuries at matches I can chalk up to youth or some misunderstanding about what "wanting it" really means. But the way Novac buys into hype is what kills any last chance I had of liking the guy. He just can't stop repeating how he beat Nadal in Miami. I mean c'mon, _we know_! Do you ever see Nadal (or any player known for their classiness) mentioning day in day out any of his wins? It just ain't done.
- Sher

Craig Hickman said...


I forgot to mention that. I was trying to put forth a restrained tirade, not just flatout launch a personal attack on the man.

He is young. There's that. But there also must be some grand insecurity in him that makes him say the things he says.

If I'm any player, an unheralded journeyman or the Next Big Thing, the last thing I'd want to do is piss off Rafa.

Anonymous said...

Craig, I'm not particularly a fan of Djokovic either way, but just to play devil's advocate--don't you also say that there needs to be a statue of limitations on bad behavior? (And I could have tennis conversations mixed up in my head, so apologies if I'm wrong.) Just curious what length of time you would give him. Personally, if the players involved aren't outwardly holding a grudge against each other any more (such as Justine and Serena) I tend to let it go in most cases.


Anonymous said...

ps Can you read that as "statute," not "statue," please. Though I'm sure a "statue of limitations" would be lovely, not quite what I meant. XD

(Also I know exactly who I may have mixed you up with, in case I did, so apologies again if this is true.)

Craig Hickman said...

I think that I allude to that in my post, nonny. Sometimes an apology will do the trick. But the farther away one gets from an event, the less sting it has. The Serena/Justine example is a decent one. But while fans forgive, we never forget. Certain actions just color future perception a lot more than others. Few people admire poor sportsmanship and lack of fair play.

And you didn't confuse me with anyone else. I said in a post also about Justine earlier that some outlets might consider choosing their words more carefully. and that everyone deserves a second chance.

That said, I'm of the impression that the Djoke will continue to add to the list of things I don't like about him. He already did in his match against Robin Soderling today. That's why I said that what he did in New York seemed more a mark of character than a mistake of youth. It could have been both.

People can change. Sometimes they don't. We'll have to see with this one.

Anonymous said...

What happened during the Soderling match?

- Sher

Craig Hickman said...

Just more gamesmanship, Sher. No need to detail it all.

What was most disturbing, however, was that the commentators were giving him credit for how he used it all to turn the match around.

Funny how hype works.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clearing that up. I think what happened is I read both you and someone else who has similar views and suddenly became quite paranoid I'd posed my question to the wrong person.

Incidentally, I understand the "forgive, never forget" thing. That's my personality as well. And there are also a few rare grievances that, while I may not hold a grudge against a person necessarily, can color my opinion so much that I can never be anything more than neutral toward them until the person specifically states and shows they've changed. (I won't name names, but extreme situations, such as someone who gives a solid clue that they might be a bigot.)

Anyway, thanks for further clarifying. Your posts are always level-headed so I was genuinely curious exactly how much history you think is fair game when discussing/judging how a player is now.