As the French Open moves to its final weekend, for the first time in years, the eyes of the tennis world are not solely trained on the 12-time champion, Rafael Nadal. Novak Djokovic, the No. 1 seed, is searching for absolution to bookend a year in which he drew most of his attention for questioning vaccinations, contracting the coronavirus at a poorly organized event and losing his temper at the United States Open, prompting his disqualification.
Djokovic had been decimating his opponents with cruel efficiency before stiffness throughout his upper body slowed him down slightly in the quarterfinals on Wednesday against Pablo Carreño Busta. Djokovic won 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 to reach the semifinals, where on Friday he will play Stefanos Tsitsipas. But forehands and backhands are not what have landed him in the spotlight lately.
The youngest and least predictable of the Big Three of men’s tennis — which includes Nadal and Roger Federer — Djokovic, 33, of Serbia, is an exhibitionist and tennis showman whose risks can turn into spectacles, both good and bad.
Those qualities appeared to help during the quarterfinal on Philippe Chatrier court, as he unleashed his verbal fusillades at his coach, and cut loose with several primal, lung-busting screams to shake himself from an early funk.
He did not handle things so well three weeks ago in New York. In the fourth round of the U.S. Open, also facing early frustration against Carreño Busta, Djokovic swatted a ball and accidentally nailed in the throat a line judge who was some 40 feet away. The incident led to his disqualification from the tournament, apologies and promises of both introspection and personal growth.
Unlike his elite peers, Djokovic has long been comfortable with letting the public see him as something other than a tennis machine and dealing with the consequences.
“I am not the one that likes to separate the professional and private life and say that I am a completely different person on the tennis court and in private life,” Djokovic said on Monday after his fourth-round win over Karen Khachanov of Russia. “I think that’s really hard to do.”
Djokovic, the rare modern athlete who really does allow people to see large parts of his persona, produced a series of meandering New Age conversations with his friend and spiritual guide, Chervin Jafarieh, exploring a wide range of topics, including the importance of intention and a discussion — that landed them both in hot water — about whether spiritual clarity can make contaminated water safe to drink. (It can’t.)
On the court, Djokovic has for years searched for a balance between keeping his emotions and irreverence in check and displaying a personality that is by turns fiery, flippant and self-conscious.
The question is whether Djokovic needs to be the extroverted, unpredictable showman that Federer and Nadal so clearly are not to play his best tennis — even if it gets him in trouble sometimes.
“It’s all a learning curve,” Djokovic said of his on-court mentality. “It’s serious stuff. Sometimes you have fun with it. Sometimes you get frustrated.”
The first public clue that Djokovic might be very different from the other greats of his era came in 2007, when Djokovic, then just 20, had his friends film him in the U.S. Open locker room impersonating Maria Sharapova, Andy Roddick, Nadal and Federer. Djokovic mocked Nadal for his tics and moaning swings, and Federer for his balletic style and pandering to an imaginary crowd.
Nadal was less than pleased.
“I think this is not a show,” Nadal said when asked the next year whether Djokovic’s showmanship was good for tennis. “I think this is a sport. Everyone can do what they want. My opinion, the show or the star is the tennis. It’s not the imitation.”
Djokovic would later smooth things over with Nadal, once he became his equal on the court. He even did the impression during an awards ceremony after Nadal had beaten him at the Italian Open in 2018.
The impressions were just the beginning. With Djokovic, a dance routine, even a striptease act, can emerge at any moment.
The sport’s establishment has mostly tolerated Djokovic because of his sublime tennis and because he is a magnet for eyeballs, even during the lockdown.
As Nadal laid low and Federer offered his lesson on trick shots during the sport’s coronavirus hiatus, Djokovic decided to start what he calls his “Self Mastery Project” with Jafarieh, “my brother from another mother,” as Djokovic describes him.
Jafarieh, a former commercial real estate and hedge fund executive who now runs a nutritional supplement company, is a kind of life coach/spiritual guide/fountain of affirmation for Djokovic.
Jafarieh did not respond to requests to be interviewed.
Their low-tech videos are filled with glitches, delays, tilted camera angles, even some awkward dead time as Djokovic waits for Jafarieh to sign on. Djokovic is unrehearsed, inquisitive, passionate and prone to falling into discussions that zig and zag toward hard-to-comprehend destinations.
Interspersed with Jafarieh’s musings about intention, gratitude and the “gnosis of self,” Djokovic delivers a unique moment of introspection about his journeys as a tennis player and a person.
“How does what I am representing, what I am saying, what I am doing in life affect the universe and the planet, and the people as a whole?” Djokovic asks.
“I believe in God, I believe in angels, I believe in the universe and higher powers that are helping you when you need it the most,” Djokovic says, adding, “Tennis right now is a place where I grow and learn and try to perfect myself. I have so many suppressed programs and emotions surfacing that I obviously need to work on seeing it as a place that allows me to thrive personally, allows me to share the passion, the love, the dream that has been with me since I was 5 years old.”
That passion can be a double-edged sword. It drove him to organize his ill-fated Adria Tour tennis exhibition in Belgrade in June, even as coronavirus infection rates remained high. Djokovic and his mates packed the stadium, paying little heed to social distancing guidelines.
Within days, Djokovic and three other marquee players tested positive for the virus. Subsequent events were abandoned.
And at the U.S. Open in New York last month, Djokovic became the first No. 1 seed to be defaulted from a Grand Slam tournament in modern professional tennis. Angry at himself for his sloppy play, Djokovic pulled a ball from his pocket and swatted it behind him, not intending to hit the judge.
Horrified and embarrassed by what he had done, Djokovic rushed to her side as she had crumpled to the ground. He pleaded with tournament officials not to disqualify him, though he knew they had little choice.
Djokovic left the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center immediately, then an hour later released an impassioned apology to the line judge and the U.S. Open, and vowed to grow from the experience “as a player and human being.”
Djokovic said on Wednesday that he is not thinking about the unpleasantness of the U.S. Open at all. “Zero percent,” he said.
On Monday, though, one of his attempted serve returns ricocheted off his racket into the face of another line judge.
In an instant, he was thinking about New York again, and making sure the line judge was OK.
“My gosh,” he said, “it was a very awkward déjà vu.”
And another moment for his career highlight reel.