Imperial Novak

My first impression of the crowd was that there were plenty of Djokovic fans. And there were, but Djokovic’s detractors — and maybe this plays into the narrative that he isn’t popular — are very loud. I sat in front of a row of them way back in the second-highest row on Rod Laver Arena. The people next to me were just fine, one of whom I turned to at the beginning of the match to ask who he was rooting for.

“Djokovic,” he said. That was the end of the conversation. The first set went by in a blur; Djokovic’s opponent, Enzo Couacaud, rolled his ankle badly and lost three straight games after his MTO at 3-1 down. It left me feeling a bit icky — Couacaud had reportedly told the physio he heard something crack in his ankle, and he’d limped badly over to his chair, but he elected to play on nonetheless.

Couacaud actually played quite well for the final three sets of the match, as did Djokovic, despite the Serb’s increasingly obvious discomfort from his hamstring injury. Though physical impairment certainly affects performance in tennis, it always seems to be less impactful than we expect. Rafa Nadal picked up an injury late in the second set of his loss to Mackenzie McDonald that’s expected to keep him out for eight weeks, but Nadal slapped enough forehand winners in the third set to actually make it closer than the first two. And tonight, Djokovic blasted through the final two sets after losing a tight tiebreak, for the loss of just two games. Whatever parts of his game were hampered by the hamstring he made up for by blasting neon missiles with his forehand.

It’s kind of a stomach-turning dynamic, this. Djokovic is so much better than Couacaud, and many others, that he’ll knowingly play through injury because he’s fully aware he can beat them anyway. For all of his struggles tonight, he didn’t lose his serve and he faced just one break point. I have no idea how much worse he made his hamstring injury, but I imagine he’s prepared to sit in a body cast for a month if that’s what it takes to win this tournament. We all remember how Djokovic played through a growing ab tear at this tournament two years ago and waxed Medvedev in the final anyway. He wrecked his body to win, his play being so good that things actually worked out the way he wanted them to. It’s certainly amazing, but I find it hard to watch, imagining what kind of pain he’s putting himself through.

On Djokovic’s dominance at this tournament, I’m genuinely curious what would happen if the same scientists who built the invincible chess and Go bots built a tennis bot and sicced it on Djokovic on Rod Laver Arena. How do you play Djokovic on a hard court? His serve has become near-untouchable. It’s not quite an Isner serve, but I’d almost rather try to break Isner at this point — send a return at the big man’s feet and he’ll snap in two trying to reach down for it, hit the ball onto Djokovic’s baseline and he’ll simply half-volley the ball back before commencing an onslaught of deep groundstrokes. Good returns are no guarantee you’ll win a point against that serve. Then he has the return, the drop shot, the increasingly soft feel at net. In the first round, Djokovic dropped all of three points in the third set against Roberto CarballĂ©s Baena. Let me know how they program that tennis bot, because I’d love to see what gameplan it uses. My guess is it’d just play like Djokovic, only its machine-like precision would be literal rather than figurative. They’d probably play a five-setter that lasted ten hours.

Seriously, how do you beat a motivated Djokovic here? If you didn’t watch the match against Couacaud and only saw the scoreline, you’d have no idea whatsoever that he was physically compromised. (The scoreline 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-0 is so very Djokovic.) At the World Tour Finals last year, the 21-time major champion emptied the tank against Daniil Medvedev in the round-robin stage, then was shaking with exhaustion by the fourth game against Casper Ruud in the final. He won anyway, never facing a break point. Some will say he was foxing to set up a rug-pull, but my theory is that he’s just good enough that he doesn’t even need to be fit to beat anyone outside the top two or three in the world.

The row of increasingly disgruntled Couacaud aficionados behind me grew antsier as Djokovic stretched his lead. “Bang!” they’d yell after every shot. “Yes!” they’d cry when a Couacaud lob landed in. Someone a couple rows in front of them told them to shut up. They clapped back at her, asking why she’d come out to the stadium instead of watching on TV.

“It’s just that the players can hear you when you shout during the point,” I tried.

“The people behind us are being loud too!” one of them responded, gesturing to the fans behind a glass partition. “You gonna tell them off?”

“Behind the glass?” I asked. I couldn’t believe they were equating themselves with fans in a sealed-off room. (In retrospect, I half-wish I’d slowly explained that the glass muffled the sound, thereby making those fans less offensive. Though maybe that would have ended badly.)

They repeated that the fans behind the glass were being loud. I gave up after that; any fully grown human being who uses the others are doing it, so it’s okay if I do defense is probably too sloshed to successfully reason with. Interestingly, though, while the row of fans clearly wanted Djokovic to lose, they also clearly understood how great he was. I heard, “how the fuck did he get that back?” more than once. Djokovic’s rifled return winners drew involuntary gasps. One of the hecklers laughed when someone suggested that they settle down early in the second set.

“Why? He’s gonna win anyway.”

With that last statement, at least, I had no argument.

A drunk fan got on Djokovic’s nerves early in the fourth set. Though the crowd was too loud for me to hear his conversation with Fergus Murphy, he was clearly peeved. Injured and irked by drunk fans, a lesser player might have buckled. Djokovic stepped back to the baseline, flung a first serve out wide, then fired a forehand winner into the right corner. If there’s anything I know about Djokovic, it’s that the heat from fans makes him stronger even as it hurts him personally.

*****

After Djokovic ripped a stunning two-hander through the court on match point, I turned back to the guy next to me who had said he was rooting for Djokovic. “Were you ever worried?” I asked him. Sure, Djokovic had won easily in the end, but his physical impairment had been clear in that lengthy second set. I was a little grateful I wasn’t deeply invested in either player’s eventual success; the stress on top of the roiling crowd would have been brutal.

But he laughed and shook his head. “No, no,” he said. “Not until the second week.”

Published by Owen

Owen Lewis has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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