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.