Novak Djokovic was exposed at Wimbledon yesterday. Court No 1 with its thin, high roof offered little protection from the sweltering 40 degree heat but the former champion smoothed his way into the third round with a straight-sets win over an opponent who grew up idolising him.
The Serb was also exposed by John McEnroe. Or rather the one-time Superbat who’s grown up to be the sport’s most provocative pundit said some things which gave rise to the newspaper headline: “Is troubled Novak the Tiger Woods of tennis?”
Rumours about Djokovic having “family issues” have swirled around the game ever since he arrived at last year’s tournament holding all four grand slam titles, fell in the third round and lost his tyrannical grip on tennis.
McEnroe said on Wednesday that Djokovic had had “some off-court issues with his family”. He added: “That’s going to throw you. If you’re distracted, you’re not the same player. The person that comes to mind immediately with Novak is not a tennis player, it’s actually a golfer: Tiger Woods. He [Woods] had issues with his wife and then he seemed to go completely off the rails and has never been even close to the same player. So we’re starting to say: ‘Wait a minute, is this possible with him [Djokovic].’”
In the press conference following his 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 victory over the Czech Republic’s Adam Pavlasek, Djokovic said of the speculation: “Yeah, I have heard about it today. Look, you know, John has a complete right to say … anybody, really, in the world has a right to say what they want, and I respect that … especially coming from John, because he’s someone that has earned that right because of who he is and what he has meant to the sport.
“He’s very well known for his kind of bold comments and not really caring too much about being politically correct but saying whatever is on his mind. That’s all I can say. I really don’t take anything personal. I always got along very well with John. I really don’t take it in a negative way, it’s fine. He has his right to say the things he wants to say. I don’t necessarily need to agree with that but it’s his right. I don’t know where was the basis [for the remarks], and maybe he was just making a comparison. I’m not really sure.”
Woods’ fall from grace was spectacular. The world’s best golfer ended up in rehab for sex addiction after his infidelity to his wife Erin was revealed. No sportsman would want comparison with that but Djokovic, jokingly, wondered if McEnroe had been prompted to make his remarks by an incident on Centre Court on Tuesday when he was warming up for his first match and the American was talking to a TV camera. “I served and [the ball] went straight at him. I don’t know, maybe it’s because of that. I take [what McEnroe said] very lightly. I don’t think there was any kind of really wrong intention towards me.”
Shutting down that debate without having gone into specifics, Djokovic, whose wife Jelena is expecting their second child, turned to his victory and was asked if it felt “weird” playing an opponent who’d hero-worshipped him in his youth. “It makes me feel old,” Djokovic said, “but, yeah, it’s nice to hear I inspired him. It’s very flattering.” He thought Pavlasek, making his Wimbledon debut, was nervous and that he could play better.
It was on Court 1 last year that Djokovic slumped to defeat by Sam Querrey, beginning the dramatic form crash in a player who’d seemed invincible. Did he have any flashbacks to that day? “No, not at all. It felt different, but in a good way. I enjoyed it.”
Djokovic is confident he can return to the top. “You know, I’m already enjoying the process very much. Especially in the last couple of months. Even though maybe results haven’t been up to the standard I’ve had in the last seven, eight years, it’s just, in order to reach a new peak, maybe you have to I guess fold a little bit in some way. I try to have that kind of mindset and approach. Understanding what I’m going through and understanding that I can’t always be very successful in playing in the highest possible level.”
At his peak, Djokovic seemed to be some brilliantly-assembled automaton, programmed always to win. This is grudging acclaim for his achievements but the player said there was probably some truth in the assessment. “Once you’re in that kind of flow, I guess, and everything is working perfectly and you’re No 1 of the world for many years and winning grand slams and that’s the standard you set for yourself, you kind of feel like you’re in some kind of machine that keeps rolling. You don’t really get the chance to sit down and reflect on what’s happening.”