Contrary to popular belief, tennis players are not automatons. If pricked, they bleed. If wounded, they grieve.
In 2011, Novak Djokovic was as consistent as a metronome. He did not lose a match until the French Open. He won three slams, defeated Rafael Nadal in six consecutive finals and vaulted to world No 1, a position he still holds. Yet he seems more vulnerable, at this moment, than he has at any time since 2010. It turns out, he is a man, not a machine.
He has suffered minor injuries this season, and those were perhaps decisive in two of his three defeats. In 2011, back and shoulder problems dogged him in the final months of the season.
Now he has a wounded spirit. His grandfather died during the Monte Carlo tournament, and he missed the funeral as he battled on to the final – before flatlining, emotionally, against Nadal.
The level of his distress can be gauged this week by his absence from the Serbia Open, a tournament in his hometown of Belgrade and organised by his family.
Last week, he said he felt "emotionally drained" and "unable to find the mental strength" since his grandfather's death. He said his withdrawal "was one of the most difficult decisions in my career, but it is impossible for me to play and think about tennis".
Many variables are involved in the making of a champion. Skill, heart, intelligence, supreme fitness. But, also, the ability to fight back from injuries and grief. Even the greats feel pain of all sorts, and Djokovic is hurting right now.
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