Mailbag: The Curious Case of Novak Djokovic

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PARIS — A quick mid-French mailbag for all of you…


Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

In a Grand Slam quarterfinal, Novak Djokovic was up 4-1 in the 4th set and had multiple break points for 5-1. He did not convert. He lost the set 13-11 in tiebreaker to the 72nd-ranked player in the world. File this under: Champions who lost their nerve.

• Not unpredictably—in fact, downright predictably—Djokovic’s quarterfinal defeat to Marco Cecchinato triggered quite of bit of chatter among you guys. We must pause and marvel at the unlikelihood of this previous sentence we have just casually written. Imagine two years ago referencing Djokovic losing to Marco Cecchinato (who?) in a Grand Slam quarter. Have to imagine that result triggering more headshaking than outright shock.

Anyway, let’s first credit Cecchinato for meeting the moment Tuesday and winning that match with high-level tennis, not least in that tiebreaker. But let’s also consider Djokovic. When he won two years ago here, he had taken five of the last six Grand Slams. From Wimbledon 2010 to the 2016 French, he reached the semis or better in 23 of the 24 majors played. Since winning the 2016 French Open, he’s reached the semis in just ONE of the seven Slams he entered. All players slump. Even in the best television series, there are occasional clunker episodes. But these last two years for Djokovic are like nothing I can recall. Four quick thoughts:

1. We often differentiate between “mental” and “physical,” but that line is artificial. The mind and body work—or don’t work—collaboratively, not in parallel spheres. 
2. Djokovic has animated the razors edge on which elite athlete operate. Come to work 5% off your peak—for whatever reason—and you go from world-beater to a guy who struggles against good competition.
Djokovic’s woes should put the sustained excellence of Federer and Nadal and Serena (and LeBron James and …) into perspective. For that matter, his current issues also add heft to what he achieved 2010-2016.
3. Yesterday’s loss must have been excruciating. But, as always, he was a terrific sport. Note this exchange:

Q: Novak, everyone has commented, the good grace you showed, warm embrace at the end. How hard is it to accept defeat in such good grace in the same manner as you can accept victory?

Djokovic: Well, it’s never been hard for me to congratulate and hug an opponent after we just shared a great moment on the court. And the one that won deserved to win the match, and that was Marco today. I know him well. He’s a great guy. He deserved. And that’s something everybody should do.
On the other hand, when you walk off the court, of course, it’s a hard one to swallow.

4. Djokovic would not commit to playing the grass season. But either way, this mystery endures. 

Hi Jon,

I heard several Tennis Channel commentators say [about Nadal] that “they love him here in Paris,” but I recall a lot of hostility toward him from French crowds in past years. Has this really changed and why? Is that because Federer is not there? Or have they really come to appreciate him?

Looking forward to Strokes of Genius. Read and thoroughly enjoyed the book. You should do some more self-promotion. 
Lucy McMorris, Durham, N.C.

•It only took 10 years. For a variety of reasons—a few of them being Nadal’s fault—the crowds in Paris took unacceptably long to warm to the greatest clay court player ever. In recent years, and this year especially, he is being feted like the champion he is. Court Philippe-Chatrier is seldom packed during the event (a discussion for anther time), but it is when Nadal is playing. He got his birthday cake on national television. He is on all the promotional material.

There’s a think piece in here vis-à-vis why it took so long for the French to come around on Nadal. Some of this is cultural. Some of this was crystallized in Nadal’s lawsuit against the French sports minister and the implications contained therein. Some of this simply the fact that Nadal is not Roger Federer, who grew up a few hours away, speaks the language, and whose values are more consistent with high culture and fashion and the Moet lifestyle.

After ten titles and 13 years, Nadal has found favor with the French. But it was the hard-earned variety.

As for promotion, it runs completely counter to my Midwest values. Usually I run away—reflexively and pathologically—from “marketing” and its cognates. There is nothing more cringy than seeing people you otherwise respect, debase themselves on social media with look-at-me posts. But, at least in some cases, I’ve come to see it as a necessary evil.  Especially when you are proud of the work performed by an entire team, which is the case here. So with that disclaimer:

Strokes of Genius” —starring Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal—airs Sunday July 1 (the eve of Wimbledon) on BBC and Tennis Channel.

Three in a row comeback five-setters for Alexander Zverev. I’m not sure if I’m supremely impressed or supremely unimpressed. Seriously.

• This question was sent on the eve of the men’s quarters, and was answered on the court. Those three consecutive five-setters… Does this mean Sascha Zverev is showing resolve and fighting, winning battles of attrition and wearing his Jez Green durability as if it’s a fashion statement? Or does it mean that he is playing longer than he ought to, and failing to take care of business in a prompt and efficient manner?

To some extent we got the answer Tuesday when Zverev’s body gave out and he lost to Dominic Thiem. (Full stop to commend the kid on playing out the match and recognizing the optics of retiring mid-match in a Slam quarter.) There’s no clock in tennis, one of its virtues. But so often long matches exact a price as events continue.


I can never help but notice that so often the men, after a tough match, give each other some love at the net with some hugs and other signs of mutual respect.  I notice that often in women’s matches the complete opposite occurs, a cold drive-by handshake with barely an acknowledgement.  I realize this doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s been enough for my friends and me to notice it.  Is that because top male players have to, in order to get a good practice, hit with each other while women often choose high-level males to use as their practice partners?  Does that tend to create a more collegial environment on the men’s side that doesn’t happen for the women?
Craig Berry, Frankfort, Ill.        

• I would like to see some data here before jumping in and generalizing. But, yes it’s hard not to notice that male and female players react different to epic matches when they meet their opponent at the net. All sorts of possible answers here, from socialization to the insular “teams”—an offshoot of your smart observation about hitting partners—to a culture that doesn’t encourage sorority. It’s reasonable to suggest that culture starts at the top. The Big Four have an unwritten rule not to speak ill of each and they go to great lengths to praise their colleagues; this trickles down and trickles across.  

I wonder if a lot of this doesn’t simply come down to age. Thirty-year-olds have a different perspective from 20-year-olds. We—which is to say I—might criticize Jelena Ostanpenko for a habit a frosty handshakes or for saying things in defeat like, “I played terribly and all she had to was show up.” She is 20. When she is 28, the average ATP age, she will be more graceful.

Dear Mr. Wertheim,

Has anyone won a Grand Slam by winning seven five-setters?

Thank you,
Ng, Vancouver

Mr. Wertheim is my late father. (But thanks.) Per ATP notes, only three men in the Open Era to have won three five-setters and gone on to win the French. (Bjorn Borg in 1974, Gustavo Kuerten in 1997 and Gaston Gaudio in 2004).  

Do you know who the man on the sign is behind the Tennis Channel set?

• Believe it’s Roland Garros, one-time pilot. At least that what Juan Martin del Potro tells us:

Q. This is not a question about the match, but I wondered, do you know who Roland Garros was?
Del Potro: Yes.
Q. Can you tell us?
Del Potro: He was an aviator. A-ha. You’re surprised?
Q. You’re the first person in here that’s got that.
Del Potro: Because they asked me a few days ago and I Googled it.

Jack Sock, Jelena Ostapenko and cheating in college tennis don’t deserve C grades. C’s are average grades. They all deserve F’s, at least for the present time. Berating a referee, losing pitifully in the first round as defending champion while not giving your opponent credit, and looking the other way while student athletes break the rules are all unsportsmanlike, unprofessional, and self-destructive behaviors.  We’re all human and make mistakes, but willful misconduct in tennis hurts the sport and deserves to be condemned.

• We call these “gentleman’s C’s,” a term popularized by a former president. I subscribe to the “man in the arena” theory. Ostapenko and Jack Sock were at least out there trying, making themselves vulnerable. The college players—and worse, college coaches—who have created this climate of dishonesty in college tennis? Okay, they get a C- upon further review.

Long-Lost Siblings

Sam from San Diego gives us: David Ferrer and Spanish actor Enrique Arce, who played the unpopular character Arturo Román in the popular Spanish TV series “Money Heist” (now on Netflix).

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