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Novak Djokovic Finds It Tough At The Top – And Getting Tougher

Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts during his quarterfinal match against Daniil Medvedev of Russia at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters tournament in Roquebrune Cap Martin, France, 19 April 2018. EPA-EFE/SEBASTIEN NOGIER



By Alix Ramsay


For sale: one well-used end-of-year championship, 16 (more or less) careful owners, 80,000 miles on the clock, 48 years old, 24 different champions, 10 countries visited, full service history, all insurances, safety certificates and licences secure until 2020. Price to be negotiated. Please apply to N. Djokovic (in the absence of anyone else with plans to take over the ATP) a.s.a.p.


What a year it has been for Novak Djokovic. Not only is he the world No.1, not only does he hold three of the four grand slam trophies (again) with the French Open still to come, not only has he managed to engineer the removal of Chris Kermode from the driver’s seat of the ATP but now he can celebrate the fact that London is very likely to lose the ATP Tour Finals after 12 years (he’s been banging on about moving the event for years. That boy is never satisfied).


According to m’learned colleagues in the British press, Turin and Tokyo are the two favourites in the chase to sign the new contract with Turin in front by a nose. The Italian Tennis Federation have, apparently, agreed to stump up a sizeable pot of cash – round £65million over five years – to guarantee the event’s financial wellbeing in these uncertain times and that has given Turin the edge. So far, that is.


It is just another job ticked off on the long, long list of tasks for the president of the player council. So busy is the world No.1 that even his friends are beginning to wonder whether he is spreading himself a little too thin. When will he ever have time to win tournaments if he keeps this up?


He certainly looked out of sorts as he stumbled out of the Monte Carlo Masters last week. He was “rusty” (his assessment) as he ground his way past Philipp Kohlschreiber in the opening round and he was unimpressed when he was finally beaten by Daniil Medvedev in the quarter-finals. Nothing was to his liking. The courts were too slow. The balls bounced too high. The weather was irritatingly unreliable. And his form was far from acceptable. Still, it was just the start of the long and winding road to Roland Garros where, he hopes, he will be able to “peak” as he expects himself to do at every grand slam.


His pal, Janko Tipsarevic, thinks Djokovic is [rude word deleted]-ing stupid to devote so much of his time to the player council presidency. But, then again, Tipsy has never won a slam, never been world No.1 and has never been the top banana of said player council. So what does he know? Which is more or less what Djokovic said.


“His comment concerning my involvement in the tennis politics, from certain a perspective, makes sense,” Djoko said, “conserving the energy and kind of trying to focus on, in a way, what matters the most for me, you know: obviously family and tennis.


“But at the same time, it is the conscious, responsible decision I made to be part of it, partly because I also feel that players want me to be there. I was kind of re-elected to be there and re-elected as the president to run another term.”


Novak Djokovic of Serbia in action during his quarterfinal match against Daniil Medvedev of Russia at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters tournament in Roquebrune Cap Martin, France, 19 April 2019. EPA-EFE/SEBASTIEN NOGIER

Novak Djokovic of Serbia in action during his quarterfinal match against Daniil Medvedev of Russia at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters tournament in Roquebrune Cap Martin, France, 19 April 2019. EPA-EFE/SEBASTIEN NOGIER

And Djokovic clearly has big plans. As well as reinforcing his position as the best player on the planet, he seems to want to create the impossible business structure: one without a leader. Think Escher and the never ending staircase or, better still, a rudderless ship.


“I feel like structurally we need to change something, because it’s hard to reach any kind of consensus when you kind of go head to head,” he tried to explain. “Three board representatives from player side will be in favour of players, of course, and then the three tournaments will be against it, and then the president is always compromised, I think.


“It’s a very difficult role to be a president of ATP in this structure, I think. I think it’s something we have to change, because we have to be able to release the pressure and responsibilities of president who make big calls every single time. And he kind of has to be in the limbo state, in a way. He’s going to satisfy one side, and the other side is obviously going to be very upset.”


Of course, one way to fix that constant gridlock would be to give the tournaments more power – or more representatives in the governing structure – but that doesn’t sound like that is what Djokovic wants. Then again, it is hard to know exactly what he does want as there are no business models for what he is describing. A multinational company with no overall boss? A football team with no captain or head coach? A country with no president, prime minister or leader (feel free to insert your own joke here)? None of these have ever been tried. Or, if they have, they have not lasted very long.


These minor details, though, can be pondered by Djokovic next week. In the meantime he has an unpredictable serve and a whole heap of unforced errors to sort out before he gets to Madrid for the next Masters 1000 event.


At least he was not alone in making a pig’s ear of his chances in Monte Carlo – Rafa Nadal was brushed aside by Fabio Fognini 6-4, 6-2 in the semi-finals. It was only the fifth match that Rafa had ever lost in the millionaires’ tax haven and it was his first defeat there since 2015. Not that that made it any easier to bear.


“It was this kind of day that everything went wrong,” Rafa said. “I probably played one of the worst matches on clay in 14 years. And today I deserved to lose because I played against a player that was better than me.


“We can talk about technical or tactical things, but it is the kind of day that the feeling is not there at all. When this happens, it is difficult to find an explanation for the rest.”


Looking desperately for a decent run of matches and an injury-free few weeks on the clay, the world No.2 will head for Barcelona next week where he is chasing his 12th title. His focus is clear and he knows what he needs to do, despite his disappointment, in order to be ready for Roland Garros.


For Djokovic, though, the road in front of him is not as straight. There are many diversions ahead and he has to plan his route carefully to avoid getting stuck down a political cul de sac if he wants to complete his second non-calendar Grand Slam. He certainly knows how to make it tough at the top, does Djokovic.

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