Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 23 September 2020

Novak Djokovic's latest misguided moment does irreparable damage to his public image

World No 1 tennis player disqualified from the US Open after striking a line judge with a ball

As arguably the greatest tennis player in history, Novak Djokovic is accustomed to being in exclusive company when measuring on-court achievements.

On Sunday, though, he joined a select club he would rather not be associated with, and while many of his Hall-of-Fame milestones have taken years to accumulate, this Hall-of-Shame incident was achieved with one fateful swing of his racquet.

Djokovic, who appeared agitated throughout his US Open fourth round match against Spain's Pablo Carreno Busta, had just been broken at 5-6 in the first set.

Frustration and absent-mindedness set in and as he sauntered back to his chair, he hit a ball, no look, with a fair amount of power toward the back court. It could have landed anywhere, but with customary pinpoint accuracy, it struck a line judge direct on the throat.

The line judge dropped to the ground and Djokovic went over to offer some assistance and an apology, but surely even he knew his fate was sealed.

After a lengthy discussion between tournament officials and the umpire - with Djokovic pleading his case - the call was made: the match was defaulted, the 33-year-old Serb becoming just the ninth player in the Open era to be disqualified during a match.

He made a swift exit from Arthur Ashe Stadium, bypassed his media duties, and uploaded a statement on social media.

"I checked on the lines person and the tournament told me that thank God she is feeling ok," Djokovic wrote. "I'm extremely sorry to have caused her such stress. So unintended. So wrong."

Just like that, his perfect 26-0 record for the year came to an end after the latest misguided saga in an image-bashing year for the 17-time Grand Slam champion.

A year that, until March, was motoring along nicely. An inaugural ATP Cup triumph with Serbia, an eighth Australian Open title and fifth in Dubai led to talk of Djokovic going unbeaten all season. The focus was, quite rightly, on his tennis exploits.

Then the coronavirus pandemic struck; tennis - and indeed the world - shut down and a renewed sense of perspective was gained by all.

Djokovic and his wife Jelena took action, donating €1 million (Dh4m) towards medical devices and supplies in their native Serbia. Here was a wealthy and high-profile figure using his platform for good. He also led discussions in ways to raise funds for lower ranked players severely affected by the absence of tournament prize money.

But then came the ill-fated Adria Tour and its ensuing chaos. Djokovic hit out at critics for launching a "witch-hunt" and refused to accept responsibility for staging a series in the midst of a pandemic - even if no rules were broken.

And that there is why his public image has taken such a hit. The Adria Tour, the US Open disqualification, even the new players' association which has been an unwelcome distraction in New York - it can be assumed Djokovic's actions do not come with any malicious intent. However, when those actions prove to be misguided, the perceived lack of self-awareness and inability to accept responsibility have been unflattering.

Djokovic's public image is an interesting paradox. An athlete who has spent years trying to earn the affection of tennis crowds often plays his best when the support is weighted against him.

Perhaps then he should, as John McEnroe suggested, embrace the bad boy image. After all, tennis greatness is what Djokovic craves above all else and while his image has taken another dent, it's on-court success that matters to him most.

As Djokovic has proved time and again, doubts and criticism only fuel his ambition - and with criticism hitting a crescendo, that is ominous for his rivals.

Updated: September 8, 2020 10:40 AM

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