An enigma, a hit and a miss from Djokovic

Novak Djokovic tras una de las varias caídas en el partido ante Francisco Cerúndolo en Roland Garros / SEBASTIÁN FEST
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Twelve years ago, in 2012, Ion Tiriac ordered salt to be thrown on the brand new blue clay courts with which the Madrid tournament intended to surprise the world. He did so on the night before the tournament began, appealing to a ‘trick’ that compacts the surface when it is wet, but which does not work in dry Madrid. Those wonderful cobalt blue courts became skating rinks. The salt, loose, was a danger. Twelve years later, the one who skated was Novak Djokovic, who slipped and fell several times in the central stadium at Roland Garros.

‘I don’t know what they’ve done,’ the world number one said at the stroke of midnight on Tuesday after an incredible 6-1, 5-7, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 win over Argentina’s Francisco Cerúndolo in four hours and 39 minutes.

The Serb gave a lengthy explanation of what happened to him in a match he had lost, and his comments are worth reading, because rarely is something so fundamental – the playing surface – talked about in such detail on the tour.

And it all comes down, in the end, to a tussle between the most successful tennis player in history and the organisers of one of tennis’ historic tournaments. The tennis player was asking for the clay to be swept and ‘settled’ more often than usual. And the organisers told him no. This disagreement triggered a story that, according to the Serb himself, could end with his withdrawal from the tournament due to injury.

‘The conditions or the kind of weather circumstances we had this year are quite unusual. We had a lot of rain, a lot of humidity, a lot of mud, very tough conditions on the court that affect the court, affect the humidity and everything, that affect the surface which is a live surface, you know, like grass. But on grass you can’t do much. On hard court it’s the way it is. But clay is the surface that you can affect in some way with some work and some care of the ground. In terms of the quality of the clay courts, Roland Garros is by far the best in the world’.

So much for Djokovic’s praise of the temple of clay. Soon came the criticism, the frustration at the French bureaucratic machine that prevented him from setting up shop in one of the world’s iconic tennis stadiums.

‘With the sun coming out after long days of rain, I noticed that it has affected the court, especially the top layers of clay. I don’t know what exactly they have done. They seem to have removed some of the clay, so there was very little, almost no clay on the court today. The drier conditions, the sun and the heat affect the clay in such a way that it becomes very slippery.’

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The knee injury he suffered early in the second set, which led to him receiving medical attention twice during the match, had to do with that strange surface condition, he said.

‘I’ve known the maintenance staff for many years and I’ve had a great relationship with them, and I actually spoke to one of them today when I was warming up on centre court a few hours before my match about, you know, sweeping the court every second, third change, giving it a little bit of extra care. The knee injury I had today was exactly because of that, because I slipped, and I slip a lot. Everybody slips on clay, but I slipped too many times. It’s quite unusual. Of course it is, because I have a kind of aggressive movement, dynamic change of directions. It’s normal for me, I’ve slipped and fallen on clay many times in my life, and on grass as well, but today it was too many times’.

Francisco Cerúndolo and Novak Djokovic during the pre-match draw / SEBASTIÁN FEST

When the Serb wanted to appeal to the flexibility of authority, he was confronted with a word that is often heard in France: ‘Non’. No.

‘I had a conversation with the chair umpire and asked him if it would be possible to sweep the court. Not waiting for a set to end, but taking care of the court a little more often. She said she would check, and talked to the maintenance staff or the supervisor, the supervisor to the maintenance staff, and the answer was no. I asked the supervisor to have a conversation with the maintenance staff. I asked the supervisor to have a conversation, and I just asked for an explanation. I’m not pointing fingers, (…) I’m just trying to understand in this whole process what is the damage to the court by sweeping it, which anyway, we do it with our feet. Before serving, a lot of players do it, they either clear the line or the space in front of where you’re going to bounce the ball or behind. I don’t see why that’s detrimental to the court.’

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‘Some of my team members are also having a conversation with people at Roland Garros, just trying to understand. I’m trying to understand why it’s so complicated to do it and why is it that the answer is constantly no. I don’t understand. I don’t understand. We can’t treat these conditions as common conditions. They’re not common. You know, we had rain. We had very bad weather for days, even a week. So that has affected the pitch itself.’

Djokovic, true to himself, appealed for drama: ‘I got injured today. Yes, I survived. I won the match. But will I be able to play the next one? I don’t know. I don’t know how bad the injury is, but could this injury have been avoided? Possibly, if, you know, if there was just a little bit more frequent care of the court during the set.’

Experience suggests that on Wednesday, when Djokovic plays Norway’s Casper Ruud for a place in the semi-finals, the Serb will be fit.

The situation on centre court at Roland Garros is an enigma, Djokovic’s criticism of the organisation, a success. But there is also a mistake, a mistake in which the Serb is a repeat offender: his obsessive need to be liked and applauded.

It is from this need, which has been evident for years, that Djokovic exaggerates and oversteps the mark. A few months ago he lamented that he had not managed to be friends with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Surely he knows that neither the Swiss nor the Spaniard would harangue the crowd again and again asking, almost demanding, to be encouraged, to be supported to the detriment of the rival. Neither Nadal nor Federer would celebrate with such emphasis and such exaggerated gestures towards the stands points in which luck had as much influence as talent and effort.

Djokovic himself admits that his injuries and miraculous recoveries generate confusion in his opponent, in this case Cerúndolo: ‘It’s not easy to play against someone who is not moving at his best for two sets and all of a sudden he starts moving great and playing great. Of course I understand that it’s not a perfect, ideal situation for him. The reason I kept going is because I really wanted to see if extra anti-inflammatories and medication were going to kick in and really help me reduce some of the limitations. And that’s what happened.’

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