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DJOKOVIC AND THE REALITY BEYOND INTENT

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

I didn’t intend for you to get hurt… but the person got hurt.

I didn’t intend to ruin your life… but the person’s life was certainly damaged to a considerable degree.

I didn’t mean to harm this relationship… but the marriage deteriorated and led to divorce.

I didn’t want to be unfair… but the appearance of unfairness was created anyway and carried a highly negative effect.

Human beings constantly try hard to be their best selves, but that doesn’t mean they always — or even regularly — succeed. We are imperfect people. We make mistakes. We won’t always arrive at the right decisions. This means that when human beings do make mistakes, there should be some allowance for imperfection. No, this doesn’t mean that mistakes should be met with no complaints or objections, or that a lack of professionalism should be quietly tolerated, but it means that as a larger community, human beings should not reflexively or instinctively suspect the worst in each other.

We’re trying to do good, trying to make an honest buck, trying to establish a career, trying to serve the public, trying to run a tennis tournament. The process won’t satisfy everyone all the time, so a tolerance for imperfections on the edges is not only warranted, but necessary.

Yet, when “innocent” or “honest” mistakes keep piling up, it becomes harder to trust individuals or the institutions/organizations they represent. The intent might be reasonable or positive or wholesome, but at a certain point, “intent” gives way to sloppiness, carelessness, or other qualities that create a context in which human beings can’t be expected to trust each other.

That’s what exists at Wimbledon, and Novak Djokovic is at the heart of it.

Djokovic doesn’t find controversy. Controversy finds him. Djokovic doesn’t seek complicated situations. They envelop him, because Djokovic isn’t accorded the same deference and courtesy afforded to Roger Federer… or British players.

Last year, Andy Murray received a Centre Court assignment in the round of 16. Djokovic went to Court 1. When Djokovic’s Court 1 match was delayed by a very long Rafael Nadal match, Djokovic didn’t have the protection and security afforded by Centre Court and its roofed existence, which would have allowed for an easy transition from an outdoor match to an indoor match. Even though Centre Court was inactive (meaning no live tennis was going on) just after 7 p.m. that evening, which meant that three hours of tennis could be played and still make the Wimbledon Village curfew, Wimbledon organizers decided to not play Djokovic on Monday. He had to wait until Tuesday. He aggravated what was later discovered to be a chronic condition in his Tuesday match. Because he played on Tuesday and not Monday, he didn’t have the full turnaround time other ATP players had before a Wednesday quarterfinal. He retired from that quarterfinal against Tomas Berdych… and didn’t play again in 2017.

This background flowed into 2018 Wimbledon, and more precisely, Saturday’s drama against British player Kyle Edmund.

Djokovic played very solid and resilient tennis to beat a tough opponent in a four-set match in difficult conditions (hot, and then shadowy), but that’s not what anyone was talking about — or wanted to talk about — when this match was over. All anyone could think about was the triple-error by chair umpire Jake Garner at 3-3 and break point for Djokovic in the fourth set.

Error number one: Edmund hit a ball off what was (confirmed by replay) a double bounce. Error number two: Edmund’s shot was called in, but it was actually out, the missed call probably being due to the linesperson being distracted by thinking the point should have been over — it actually wasn’t. Error number three: Edmund hit the net before the second bounce of the ball. The point should have been Djokovic’s for three separate reasons. Garner made three incorrect calls, and one could even say that Garner — given the cluttered and chaotic nature of the proceedings — could have invited Djokovic to challenge the linescall, the one part of the play he had the power to challenge, but might have missed, given his displeasure at the non-call of the double bounce. Garner did not do that, which would have solved the situation and taken everyone involved — himself, Edmund, and the linesperson — off the hook. Djokovic would not have been the victim of three bad calls on the same point. Everyone would have been able to move on… but instead, the Centre Court crowd became encouraged by Edmund’s subsequent escape to hold for 4-3 in the fourth.

This wasn’t a scheduling issue such as 2017 on Manic Monday, but it resurrected for many the idea that Wimbledon is out to get Djokovic, whereas British players will be given the benefit of the doubt in numerous ways.

The point here is not to litigate or conclusively prove/disprove the above statement. People are going to think and feel what they choose to, and no one — not myself, not any tennis writer, not any tennis commentator on television — is going to stop that. The point which needs to be advanced here is that decisions don’t have to be intentional or purposeful in order to be very harmful. Failures and oversights and sloppy processes don’t have to mean that tournaments conspire against certain players — they can just be dumb or inflexible or narrow-minded.

Not everything can be a conspiracy — if everything WAS a conspiracy, the people who run major tennis tournaments should belong in prison.

Not everything can be a plot — if everything WAS, no new tennis venture of appreciable scope or scale could ever withstand scrutiny.

In recent years, Tennis Twitter has become a place where — more and more — large groups of people are convinced that the powers that be intend to hurt their favorite players. In many cases, these claims don’t have merit, but when something happens to Djokovic on par with 2017, and then something such as Saturday’s incident with Garner — at Wimbledon, with a British player involved on the other side of the net — unfolds in real time, one is reminded why the conspiracies and the constant skepticism about tennis executives or tournament organizers persist. This is why so many people distrust leaders in tennis — they think it is all a rigged system… with an intent to harm certain players.

This is where the matter gets complicated.

Yes, tennis decisions ARE biased — the bias is to make as much money as possible, which often translates to making the TV product as attractive as possible for advertisers, and the tournament experience smoother for ticketholders. Yet, “making money” comes across for many as “being subservient to Player A and hostile to Player B.” Tennis fans think these decisions are personal, not structural or organizational.

This is where conspiracy theories break down, but it’s also where the emphasis on sloppiness and carelessness becomes more important.

Consider something else which happened late Saturday at Wimbledon. Nick Kyrgios and Kei Nishikori were forced to start their match at 7:28 p.m. on the not-yet-roofed Court 1, which basically left them 100 minutes to complete a best-of-five-set match before a Middle Sunday without play. Only because Kyrgios dumped the first set in under 20 minutes, and only because the match was a straight-setter (won by Nishikori), did the match finish before darkness, but that rescue from embarrassment for the tournament (a likely resumption of this match on Monday, imbalancing the men’s draw) shouldn’t obscure the point that this was an unforced error. Court 18 was available roughly an hour before Kyrgios-Nishikori started on Court 1. That match could have begun much earlier, with a real chance of playing five sets, at least four. Nishikori bailed out Wimbledon, but it remains that Wimbledon made a terrible unforced error.

Here is the kicker: This match occurred in the bottom half of the draw, the one not occupied by Roger Federer. It was the quarter of the draw in which Djokovic resided. Therefore, this mess could have indirectly helped Djokovic had Kei and Nick resumed their third-round match on Monday, forcing the winner to play on Tuesday while Djokovic (presumably in the quarterfinals) took the day off after his fourth-round match on Monday.

This was not an anti-Djokovic conspiracy… but it WAS sloppy organizational maneuvering.

That’s something Wimbledon does a lot. It has done so in many situations over the past few years, some which definitely benefited Federer but others which benefited other players. If everything is a conspiracy, EVERY bad men’s tournament decision would need to help Federer, but you see, that’s the point: Wimbledon is just inflexible as a general rule. Wimbledon is shortsighted as a regular matter of course. Wimbledon is slow to adjust and reticent to rock the boat. Wimbledon will stand behind preventing a “crowd stampede,” cited in its decision to not play Djokovic on Manic Monday last year, or reassert its desire to satisfy Court 1 ticketholders, as was the case in the decision to send Kyrgios and Nishikori on court at 7:28, far later than that match ever should have begun.

Wimbledon just isn’t very agile with its decisions when the normal plan and normal schedule (the fairest in tennis, for reasons I have frequently discussed at various major tournaments over the past five years) gives way to more complicated circumstances which demand adjustments.

This works against the conspiracy theories, but what it also does is reaffirm the point that being biased is not something which has to empirically exist for a tournament’s credibility and reputation to suffer.

I’m sure Wimbledon doesn’t intend to hurt Djokovic… but it does.

I’m sure Wimbledon doesn’t intend to inconvenience Serena Williams with its Manic Monday order of play… but it HAS done exactly that, forcing Serena’s match to start later than any other WTA match on Monday, giving her the shortest possible turnaround for Tuesday’s quarterfinals among all players (except for her opponent, Evgeniya Rodina).

I’m sure Wimbledon organizers conceptually and intellectually believe in the value of fair play, but their decisions simply don’t live up to that lofty ideal. This isn’t malice, but it is sloppiness, and as said at the start of this piece, enough sloppy decisions — enough acts of carelessness — will, if repeated often enough, create the appearance of bias, which has the same negative effect as actual bias itself. So what if the bias is unintentional — it still erodes credibility.

That is what Wimbledon refuses to understand… and that is why Novak Djokovic is the subject and center of so many conspiracy theories which believe that a full staff of tournament officials lives to serve Roger Federer in every way possible.

Not everything is a conspiracy — heck, not even MOST THINGS… but intending not to hurt someone matters little if that person gets hurt anyway. Tennis tournaments and tennis leaders at various levels of governance and administration need to realize that point sooner rather than later.

Source: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images Europe

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