Paging Dr. Zachary Smith – ‘Oh the Pain. The Pain!’

There is no doubt that Novak Djokovic is the best tennis player in the world. There’s no doubt that he has the most complete game. Grounded in his mutant-like ability to cover the court and recover to centre from seeming hopelessly out of position, Novak Djokovic is this tennis generation’s undisputed X-Man.

That makes his continuing antics in tough matches, just when it seems his opponent is getting on top all the more curious. Especially since it happens almost exclusively against players that have a better game than him, when they are playing at their best.

At this stage in their careers Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Juan Martin del Potro, and Kei Nishikori are not better players than Novak Djokovic. For different specific reasons including age, injuries, experience, self-belief and physical rigour, all of the above tend to be eclipsed by Djokovic now, over the course of the year.

And that is borne out by the rankings.

The gap has widened even further now, with Djokovic’s record fifth Australian Open victory. All of his closest competitors lost ground with respect to their own results, as compared to last year. This was compounded by Djokovic’s 1640 ranking point improvement on his own comparative achievement.

Once Andy Murray beat Tomas Berdych to make the final, much was made of the return of the so-called ‘Big Four’, to the official top four ranking positions. After two consecutive years of upheaval, with injuries and poor form precipitating relatively steep drops for Federer and Murray respectively. After 2014 had two non Big 4 Grand Slam winners for the only time since it evolved into being as a concept. For the moment, it seems the evolution of tennis’ hierarchy has reverted back to the future.

With a different runaway Number 1 occupying the seat, in the near decade long monopoly these men have had in the rankings game of musical chairs.

Interestingly though… and perhaps giving impetus to the notion of the ‘Big Four’ being a misnomer, only three have been able to get themselves into the dominant number one position. So long a Grand Slam bridesmaid, Andy Murray’s latest near miss perhaps reinforces his junior membership in this particular Body Corporate.

Always competitive in their personal contests, with significant victories over each of his competitors, Andy Murray nevertheless hasn’t really threatened to achieve Tennis’ rankings pinnacle. Briefly holding the number 2 ranking, he hasn’t harnessed the all-round, year-long consistency his contemporaries have achieved over at least two full rankings seasons.

Succumbing to Djokovic – curious antics and all – on Sunday night, Murray perhaps lost another opportunity, for this to finally be the year he upgraded his Big Four membership to platinum.

Missed opportunities aside, it’s those curious antics from Djokovic I want to look a little deeper into.

In his post-match press conference, Murray admitted two things. Apart from the expected disappointment, he revealed that he had indeed noticed Djokovic’s travails throughout. And that he was especially disappointed that he allowed them to distract him in the third set, when he was up a break and double-fisting shot after shot of momentum.

Of course I’m paraphrasing here, but Murray was definitely ascendant there. Having finished the second set tiebreak with a delightfully timed forehand return passing shot, Murray was letting the liquid fire of momentum warm the back of his throat. He quickly went up 2-0, with a seemingly suffering Djokovic being pounded into rubber-legged submission.

However, just when it seemed Murray had the opportunity to move away simply by continuing what he was doing, the admitted distraction of his opponent’s travails was followed immediately by yet another miraculous Djokovic recovery.

The third set got away from Murray before the dust settled and by the fourth, Djokovic was riding momentum like Seattle Slew down the stretch of the Belmont. Having broken his opponent figuratively, he ensured Murray stayed down mentally, with a bagel to close out such an eventually dominant second consecutive victory in this year’s tournament.

It was these two victories, over Wawrinka and Murray, together with the asinine commentary that accompanied them, which crystallised just how big a factor Djokovic’s antics remain. Despite the undeniable development to objective ascendancy in his game, his reversion to juvenile distractions does him a severe disservice.

The commentary from Channel Seven’s Holy Trinity, McAvaney, Courier and Hewitt – no stranger to niggling tactical antics on court himself – were …

… you know what? I can’t decide. Either they were being oblivious lickspittle lackeys, as seemed obvious when taken at face value, or there was a deeper passive aggressive agenda being perpetuated as they agonised over Djokovic’s travails, in between the on-the-surface supercilious fauning admiration of his powers of recovery and their anecdotal recollections of similar events past.

The thing is, Djokovic’s intermittent pantomime of discomfort evokes nothing so much as a talented youngster, who is so self-absorbed that when they find themselves in danger of defeat, they ostentatiously ensure we ‘know’ it’s because they are ‘suffering’.

The way Djokovic does it, makes the outcome at least twofold. ‘Nah, you’re not really better than me’, combines insidiously with the power of distraction to allow him to snap down like a mouse-trap, as his affected opponent nibbles on the cheese of illusion he has baited.

It’s not as blatant, nor is it as overtly disrespectful, but it reminds me of nothing so much as renowned tennis brat John McEnroe. Both in the fact of its destructive attempts at distraction. And because it’s entirely unnecessary.

At one time or another. Or now. These two men were and are, clearly the best players in the world. There was never any need for them to descend into antics. There still isn’t. However, McEnroe then and Djokovic now stoop their competitive strainers to draw forth the worst dregs of their competitive instincts.

One last time. It’s not because they’re foxing.

It’s because they WANT to.

And that’s a pity.


  1. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    “oblivious lickspittle lackeys,”
    That made my day Gregor. What an apt description. Take a bloody position and stick with it. The Djoker is on them if they can’t appreciate the art of a good Balkan milking.

  2. Couldn’t agree more, Gregor. The timing of Djokovic’s injury issues were far too coincidental in the semi and the final. Both times his opponent was starting to dominate the game – Wawrinka getting inside the baseline and Murray overwhleming him with power into the corners. The injury feign (much like McEnroe, the histrionics may be real but it’s the show that matters) allows a reset, putting his opponents off their rhythm and to make them doubt their tactics.

    Also like McEnroe, I think it crystallises something in Djokovic – it seems to simplify his game and give him permission to swing freely. It all adds to the interest of the game for me despite the unsavoury nature of the foxing.

  3. Gregor Lewis says

    Ah Phil, they definitely got their goats & lambs in a tangle there, eh?
    It was just grating to listen to, especially when what Djoker was doing was so obvious.

    Cheers Dave.
    Love your closing paragraph.
    That’s it in a nutshell.
    As for Djoker, I was particularly impressed (AND frustrated with the commentarors’ obliviousness)with the way he manipulated both opponents’ rhythm on serve, especially Wawrinka when he was serving from Top of Screen, as seen on TV.

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