In Good Conscience

Perhaps Djokovic gained more than he lost on court

Novak Djokovic has made a career out of confounding us. He could look hollow and haunted and yet summon the will to win from the brink of defeat over and over again.

He surprised - no, shocked - tennis aficionados again on Thursday. His sport, like others, packs TV commentary booths with ex-champions. None strung together such an unyielding run of Grand Slam triumphs like Djokovic, but they are paid to give instant judgments on what went so wrong with him this week.

Well, maybe there was a clue in the answer Djokovic gave in the media room shortly after losing his second-round contest to the world No. 117, Denis Istomin.

Asked what he would take away from his defeat, the Serb said he would take his bags and go home.

Home to Monte Carlo, to his wife Jelena and their two-year-old son Stefan.

Home to that European haven where, at last count, Djokovic had banked career prize money amounting to US$107,898,543 (S$154,254,196).


PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

While old champions Pat Cash and Boris Becker broadcast that this looks like burnout for a man who (perish the thought) turns 30 in May, perhaps Djokovic is on the verge of discovering life rather than surrendering anything.

I'll give you a moment to digest that money mountain before suggesting that it is probably compounded four-fold by sponsorship and business spin-offs that include the purchase of arable land back in Serbia where he plans to cultivate vineyards.

No doubt the wine will be distinctive. Djokovic might, when he comes out of this unnatural, almost dehumanising tennis cocoon, broaden out his life and make full use of his remarkable linguistic skills and quite possibly give more time to the human causes that he espouses.

So, while old champions Pat Cash and Boris Becker broadcast that this looks like burnout for a man who (perish the thought) turns 30 in May, perhaps Djokovic is on the verge of discovering life rather than surrendering anything.

Cash won one Grand Slam, the Wimbledon title in 1987. Becker won six Majors between 1985 and 1996.

Djokovic piled up 12 Slams in seven years, an Open-era run bettered only by Roger Federer who, at 35 years old, is back out there after surgery trying to recapture what he once was.

The fact seems to be that, for the imperious Roger and the indomitable Novak, their thirties are a life-changing time.

Which surprises you more, the wonder of the way they sustained their levels in such a demanding, year-long, physical and mental pursuit? Or the fact that, as they become family men and home beckons, they do become more human, less impregnable?

Look, I'm as guilty as the commentators of putting the champion's decline before the beauty of Istomin achieving the win of his life.

Istomin, born in Russia but taken to Uzbekistan when he was three months old, is, clearly, better than his rank. He has been coached throughout his career by his mother Klaudiya, and paid immediate tribute to her while still on Rod Laver Arena on Thursday night.

"First of all, I feel sorry for Novak," the bespectacled Uzbek said. And, with a smile, he added: "I was playing so good today. I surprised even myself."

Djokovic knows how to lose. "All credit to Denis, he deserved to win," the dethroned six-time Australian Open winner said.

"No doubt, he was the better player in the clutch moments. Sure, he was an underdog, but he didn't show any nerves in the big moments."

We will probably not see Djokovic again until he defends his crown (one of his crowns) at Indian Wells in March. We know there have been changes in his life, and in his retinue of coaches, dietitians, fitness gurus and advisers.

Becker's harsh and instant conclusions on TV were doubtless prompted by the fact that he had left Djokovic's camp at the back end of last season, concluding that the intensity had begun to dissipate in the Serb.

The easy conclusion is that Djokovic had finally captured the French Open last June, completing his set of all four Grand Slams - Melbourne, Paris, Wimbledon and New York - in the same year his hunger slackened off.

Again, is that so astonishing?

Djokovic lost a five-set, 4hr 48min match in which he led his opponent by two sets to one. "It's one of those days when you don't feel great on the court," Djokovic explained. "You don't have much rhythm, and the player you're against is feeling the ball very well.

"So, you know, that's sport."

Others, like Becker, can say a great champion cannot go down so passively to an opponent like Istomin, who struggled to qualify through an Asian wildcard tournament even to get to Melbourne.

And, the consensus of former champions is that Djokovic has no chance now of overtaking Federer's 17 Grand Slam victories.

Maybe, just maybe, Djokovic doesn't want or crave that record. Heck, who knows, Federer is still in the Aussie Open, and with the Serb gone he might take title No. 18?

Or maybe for Andy Murray, 29 is an age to fulfil while Djokovic experiences vulnerability?

That, too, is sport. The man with rhythm, and hunger, deserves the cup, just as Istomin deserved his day on court.

Life at the top may not get simpler. Djokovic gave a cryptic clue last autumn, saying "private issues" were affecting his form.

He didn't elaborate, and didn't revisit that statement in Melbourne. Becker did. The German said that one reason he left Djokovic at the end of last year was that he felt tennis was becoming less of a priority in the Serb's mind.

"I didn't see him going mentally crazy," Becker concluded. "I'd rather see him break a racket or pull the shirt or something, see him emotional. Novak wasn't injured, he was two sets to one up, that is unusual and doesn't fit the picture I have of him."

Maybe the picture has changed and is challenged by family priority. If so, welcome to the world of normalcy, Novak.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 21, 2017, with the headline 'Perhaps Djokovic gained more than he lost on court'. Print Edition | Subscribe