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Couch: The Mystery That Is Novak Djokovic Continues To Confound

It might be that Novak Djokovic’ body has miracle healing properties. It might be that his courage and willingness to continue to play tennis while in agony are beyond belief. Or, it might be. . .something else.

But what’s certain is that the mystery of Novak Djokovic continues. It leads to distrust at a time when he so desperately wants to be loved and respected.

Djokovic holds the record for most times on his deathbed only to pop back up with an immediate ability to swim across the ocean, sprint through the desert, then fly to the moon.

It happened again Sunday at the Australian Open, when he beat Milos Raonic 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 to reach the quarterfinals. Two nights earlier, Djokovic had beaten American Taylor Fritz in five sets, said that he had torn his oblique muscles, considered quitting and then just gutted it out. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to play Raonic at all.

So, what happened? How did he go from deathbed to a beatdown on one of the world’s best players?

“This is definitely one of the more special wins of my life,’’ Djokovic said after beating Fritz. “It doesn’t matter what round it is and against who it is. Under these kinds of circumstances to pull this through is definitely something I will remember forever.’’

I was actually touched at the time. I had just written that Djokovic isn’t Djokovic anymore, that he has lost his joy and seems insulted that he has to fight at all. Djokovic fans on social media got a little uppity with me about that. They were more relentless than he has been.

And against Fritz, it did seem that he had simply guts-ed it out.

Fritz seemed to have a different view at the time, saying it “looked like he was struggling in the third and the fourth (set), and he didn’t really look like he was struggling in the fifth. When I hit a winner, he’d kind of, like, pull at it. He looked fine in the fifth.’’

That is something Djokovic used to be known for, suddenly limping or clutching at his back or something any time he lost a point. Andy Murray used to do the same thing and when they’d play each other, not a point could pass without one of them clutching at something.

But after he beat Fritz, Djokovic said he had definitely torn muscles and that led to two days of news stories about Djokovic’ treatment and practice schedule and whether he would be forced to withdraw. 

Djokovic loves the attention. So am I calling BS on Djoker? Calling hjim a faker? Not really.

I’m just guessing here. Call it an informed guess from someone who has watched Djokovic’ career and used to talk with him. I think Djokovic really was hurt the other night, but he also turns everything into as much drama as he can, win or lose. He wins big. He loses big. He leads big. He trails big. 

He hurts big, too. Maybe bigger than things really are.

I mentioned the other day what it was like watching him win an Australian Open years ago, when he started tearing off clothes and throwing them into the crowd. He felt like a conqueror. Later — and I didn’t mention this — reporters waited for him to come out of the locker room to talk with us. We heard him singing with a group of guys. Loudly singing.

He is obsessed with being considered at the level of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and while his tennis is close to that level, no one considers him at that level. Other than the Djoker mob that reached out to me the other day, that is.

There is history with this.

In 2008, Djokovic was ready to play Andy Roddick in the U.S. Open. A reporter started to ask Roddick about Djokovic’ bad back and hip and fatigue from the Beijing Olympics, when Roddick said, “And a cramp. Bird flu. Anthrax. SARS. Common cough and cold.”

In the final of the 2015 Australian Open, Djokovic lost the second set to Andy Murray and then seemed to be unable to play until — poof! — he won the fourth set 6-0.

A reporter asked Murray if it’s OK to fake an injury.

“No, it’s not legitimate,’’ Murray said. “Like, I have no idea what the issue was. He obviously looked like he was in quite a bad way at the beginning of the third set and came back unbelievable at the end of that set.’’

The key word was “unbelievable,’’ as in, Murray didn’t believe.

When Djokovic beat Federer to win Wimbledon in 2014, he talked about how badly he needed the win, how his confidence had been in crisis.

Crisis? Djokovic had already won six majors. I wrote that he had dug his way out of “an imaginary hole.’’

It’s the kind of things kids do, pretending. I can’t tell you how many matches I played against Bjorn Borg in my head as a kid hitting off a backboard. I usually won dramatically, though my neighbors were screaming for me to stop banging that damn ball.

So what will happen now for Djokovic? Who knows? Maybe Djokovic will be too hurt to play. Maybe he’s hurt but courageously fighting through. Maybe he’s playing possum.

But it reminds me of a press conference I was at during the 2010 Australian Open. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had just played Djokovic, who was suffering from some condition or another. Someone asked Tsonga when he first noticed something was wrong with Djokovic. This is what he said:

“Five years ago.’’

Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in RollingStone.com and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for CNN.com/Bleacher Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.

4 Comments

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  1. Another award-winning column from the guy who loves to guess, speculate, and rumorize about pro athletes. Uggggh…almost full-yenta here.

    GC: “Djokovic loves the attention. So am I calling BS on Djoker? Calling hjim a faker? Not really. I’m just guessing here. Call it an informed guess from someone who has watched Djokovic’ career and used to talk with him.” (Maybe ‘used to talk with him’ has something to do with the “style” of writing about him?)

    I’m gonna guess along with you, Greg, and speculate that Joker uses this technique to get under the skin of his ATP circuit opponents? It’s a good tactic. Clearly it’s working on you, too.

    • Since none of us know the truth about the poor, constantly-injured but able-to-play-and-win-games guy, there isn’t much left BUT supposition, is there? I enjoyed the article, laughed at the comments by the other players.

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