For almost a decade, Novak Djokovic has played second fiddle in the Big Three rivalry - both as a player and as a person. And it was evidently witnessed during his match-ups with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. But over time, Djokovic has learnt to live with the crowd expectation, the 2019 Wimbledon win epitomising his calmness amid the hostile audience, a win that has also been part of his incredible rise leaving him within the touching distance of the ageless Federer.
The Serb has won five of the last nine majors which has left him three behind Federer and two behind Nadal. In 2020 he was en route to an invincible run with 26 consecutive wins, which also includes the Australian Open win, the second-most in a row after his own record of 41-0. And with no Federer and Nadal at the Flushing Meadow this American summer, his invincible run left him favourite to claim an 18th career major and a fourth grand slam title in New York.
Besides his incredible numbers, Djokovic has lately immersed himself in tennis politics, looking to organise exhibition matches and also aiming for a new player's association with some young talents. But a forgettable summer for the Serb, topped by the ill-fated incident at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Centre on Sunday evening only further damaged the rise of Djokovic.
After losing the 11th game in the first set of his round-of-16 tie against No. 20 seed Pablo Carreno Busta, Djokovic inadvertently smashed the extra ball in anger at the lineswoman in her throat as he dropped to her knees in agony clutching her throat. She was immediately taken outside the court while Djokovic spent the next 15 minutes pleading to the officials to reconsider their decision. Eventually, he was defaulted, losing all his points earned in the tournament. He walked towards Busta, shook hands, then packed his rackets and walked out of the court with head down in dismay and regret.
And all in the moment of disbelief, Djokovic's hopes of adding another major to his tally breathed its last in front of a million on TV and an empty Arthur Ashe Stadium.
This isn't the first time that anger and frustration had got the better of Djokovic. In the most recent scenarios, Djokovic had hit the ball into the crowd in last year's ATP Tour Finals and was as the receiving end of criticism from both media and Twitterati. In another incident, back in 2016, during the French Open, he was rebuked for throwing his racket in frustration which narrowly missed the line judge.
As a player, considering his tactical mind, Djokovic has been a supreme talent. He has one of the most effective serves on tour and is arguably the best returns in men's tennis. But he has often been let down by poor judgements. Even for Sunday's incident, the Serb could have only apologised after the incident rather than looking to find a leeway. It was only later that evening that Djokovic took to Instagram to admit his mistake.
But for Djokovic, who is looking to be a new voice of tennis politics, there have been some poor calls off the court as well, two which were witnessed this summer itself.
The infamous Adria Tour being the first. It was a self-organised exhibition tour in Serbia with few top stars and some new faces with the idea of raising funds for COVID-19 patients and hoping to offer some competition to the newbies. But the notion took a hit after players and coaches, including him, tested positive for coronavirus. Later on social media, a video went viral which clearly showed that none of the social-distancing norms were followed. Djokovic was torn apart by tennis fraternity.
A few weeks later, as he recovered, Djokovic said that he would opt out of US Open 2020 because "the rules that they told us that we would have to respect to be there, to play at all, they are extreme." The statement came a few days after USTA announced their intention to host the grand slam in New York and subsequently listed the COVID-19 protocols. The call did not go down well with the lower-ranked players who were financially hit by the pandemic and were eagerly waiting for the tournament to happen. These were the players who Djokovic sought to help with his new player's association.
But later he came down to New York, extended his unbeaten run to win the Western & Southern Open and later geared up for US Open.
Djokovic is not a bad as a person even. During the pandemic, he donated largely for the cure of COVID-19 in the Balkan region and helped lower-ranked players, but again, some poor judgements off the field have often left him in the wrong side of the court.