For a man with no official defeats in 2020, Novak Djokovic has registered plenty of losses.
The world No 1, not for the first time, now finds himself mired in controversy after his latest act of petulance at the US Open, in which he accidentally hit a line judge with a ball mid-match.
Djokovic has since issued a grovelling apology on social media, undoubtedly with the help of his PR advisors, but after a damning 2020 off – and now on – the court, it will be near impossible for him to resurrect his reputation.
Novak Djokovic argues with the Head of Officiating at the US Open after being kicked out
Djokovic hit a line judge in the throat with a ball after getting frustrated during his match
He is unrivalled in terms of his talent on the court, and has cemented his place at the top of the ATP rankings this season without a single blemish on his record.
Beginning at the Australian Open, he dropped just three sets in seven matches, coming through the draw with relative ease to beat Dominic Thiem in the Melbourne final.
Just before that Grand Slam, he had won the ATP Cup and just after he travelled to Dubai to win there too. Eighteen wins and no defeats had left the 33-year-old in imperious form, with little anybody could do to stop him.
In fact, it turned out that the only person really capable of derailing the Djokovic train was Djokovic, and he did it in some style just weeks later – in the middle of a global pandemic.
We’re not talking a little stumble here, but instead a reckless error that could have endangered lives at his Adria Tour event.
With official tennis competition halted globally, the Serb decided to take matters upon himself to create his own exhibition event, bringing together a number of the world’s top players with fans also invited to watch it all unfold.
The line judge appeared to be in a lot of pain as Djokovic went to check if she was okay
It is not the first time that Djokovic has struggled to control his emotions on a tennis court
No social distancing, no masks, and no concern… what could possibly go wrong? Everything, it turned out.
Borna Coric, Grigor Dimitrov and Viktor Troicki all contracted Covid-19, before Djokovic himself also tested positive alongside his wife.
Djokovic’s s father initially leaped to his defence, claiming that Dimitrov had brought coronavirus with him when he arrived at the competition.
‘How did the infection come about?’ Djokovic Sr said on RTL’s Croatian TV network. ‘Probably because Dimitrov arrived sick, from who knows where. He was not tested in Zadar, but somewhere else. I don’t think that’s right. He brought great harm to you in Croatia, and to us as a family, and to Serbia.’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were few others siding with Djokovic on this one and days later he admitted he was wrong to have organised the event, agreeing that it had come too soon.
It didn’t help that pictures showed Djokovic and his fellow pros playing football, basketball and enjoying a night out in a club during the Adria Tour, held in Croatia and Serbia. In some of the photos, which clearly showed there was little, if any, social distancing, players were dancing with their tops off.
The ill-fated Adria Tour back in June ended with a series of players contracting coronavirus
There was no social distancing and fans packed into the stadium to watch the matches in June
Djokovic (left centre) was joined by the likes of Alex Zverev and Dominic Thiem in a nightclub
Djokovic and Co partied in a Belgrade nightclub, with some of the players taking their shirts off
Djokovic and Grigor Dimitrov were among the tennis stars pictured playing basketball
Dimitrov (left), Djokovic and Co also played football during the first leg of the Adria Tour
In a statement posted on social media – a shout-out to those PR advisors again – he said: ‘Everything we did in the past month, we did with a pure heart and sincere intentions. Our tournament was meant to unite and share a message of solidarity and compassion throughout the region.
‘The Tour was designed to help both established and up-and-coming tennis players from south-eastern Europe to gain access to some competitive tennis while the various tours are on hold due to the Covid-19 situation.
‘It was all born with a philanthropic idea, to direct all raised funds towards people in need, and it warmed my heart to see how everybody strongly responded to this.’
It is perhaps worth noting at this point that throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Djokovic has been widely criticised for his ‘anti-vaxxer’ stance.
Djokovic breaks his racket on the clay at Roland Garros during a match at the French Open
After the Adria Tour, players went for a night out and ignored social distancing guidelines
Back in April, he claimed that he could delay his return to the tennis tour if testing was made compulsory in the build-up to events.
That drew the ire of leading Serbian government epidemiologist Predrag Kon, who was concerned about the influence that the nation’s top sporting icon could have on others.
Of course, there was significant backtracking from Djokovic in the months that followed as he agreed to be tested in order to play at the US Open and other top tournaments, but his strong anti-vaccine stance left many angry.
Djokovic has a keen interest in scientific and spiritual matters, and has previously spoken of his preference for natural healing as opposed to conventional medicine. In an open online conversation he admitted he would not be comfortable taking a vaccination if one became available.
One thing that has become incredibly clear this year, if it wasn’t already, is that Djokovic isn’t a man afraid of voicing his opinion, regardless of whether it’s popular or not.
The world No 1 makes his way off the court on Sunday after his last-16 match was defaulted
The Serb looked devastated after finding out that he was being kicked out of the tournament
In fact, until recently he was president of the ATP Players Council, speaking out on behalf of his peers – but he has just resigned from that role in yet another controversial decision.
After years of disgruntled statements and discussions away from the cameras, Djokovic has decided to lead a players revolt and has created a breakaway group in a bid to earn himself – and other top players – a bigger share of the revenue raised by tournaments around the world.
Since 2018, the Serbian has been pushing for this to happen and he has now finally taken the steps, with strong opposition from the likes of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray.
Last month, he confirmed the formation of the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA), which wreaked havoc in the build-up to the US Open, splitting the men’s game in half between those siding with Djokovic and those opposing him.
Back in 2010, Djokovic throws down his racket in frustration in a match with Victor Hanescu
Viktor Troiki (left) poses with Djokovic during their match at the Adria Tour back in June
British star Dan Evans called it ‘horrible timing’, noting: ‘It’s very tough to make a decision like that in some group chat, a few emails flying around. We have to be careful what we wish for.’
While Djokovic’s decision could make himself and the other top players a hefty chunk of change, there is concern among the lower-ranked players that it could further jeopardise their chances of a big pay-day.
Just before the US Open, though, there was a fair amount of signatures on Djokovic’s mandate, with 60 male players at the tournament taking his side.
Fast forward a week and Djokovic’s US Open has ended under the darkest of clouds. From posing on Arthur Ashe alongside his new Players Association colleagues just a few days ago, Sunday saw him strolling off the court having been kicked out of the competition.
Midway through the first set of his round of 16 match against Pablo Carreno Busta, Djokovic reacted to losing a game by smashing a ball towards the back of the court and inadvertently hitting a line judge in the throat.
Dan Evans is among the players who has opted not to be a part of Djokovic’s break-out group
In a previous press conference, Djokovic had brushed off concerns over his lack of discipline
While it was, of course, an accident, the act of petulance left the line judge collapsed on the floor. There was no lasting damage to her health, but there certainly will be to Djokovic’s already-tarnished reputation.
His match was automatically defaulted and Carreno Busta will go on to face Denis Shapovalov in the quarter-finals, rather than Djokovic as was widely expected.
The tournament favourite quickly left the US Open facilities without fronting up to the media, before posting a statement on his social media channels later in the day.
While the apology was full of shame and regret, his initial response at the net was far more telling, as he begged for his place in the competition.
Djokovic posted a picture of himself and the players who have signed up for his new group
The line judge looks at Djokovic following the incident at the US Open on Sunday afternoon
‘She doesn’t have to go to the hospital for this,’ he said, a shocked look across his face. ‘You’re going to choose a default in this situation? My career, Grand Slam, centre stage?’
The statement on social media later read: ‘This whole situation has left me really sad and empty. I checked on the lines person and the tournament told me that thank God she is feeling ok.
‘I’m extremely sorry to have caused her such stress. So unintended. So wrong. I’m not disclosing her name to respect her privacy. As for the disqualification, I need to go back within and work on my disappointment and turn this all into a lesson for my growth and evolution as a player and human being.
‘I apologise to the tournament and everyone associated for my behaviour. I’m very grateful to my team and family for being my rock support, and my fans for always being there with me. Thank you and I’m so sorry.’
Although he is in top form on the court, Djokovic’s reputation is in tatters and may not recover
While he may indeed be sorry for his misdemeanour at the US Open, and his ill-fated decision to create the Adria Tour in the middle of a global pandemic, his reputation has been left in tatters.
He is quite easily the best in the world at the sport he plays, and perhaps one of the best ever to have graced the court, but at the age of 33 there will not be sufficient time to mend his damaged esteem.
Djokovic will go down in history as the bad boy of tennis, no matter how many Grand Slam titles he adds to the 17 he has already won.
He may still be unbeaten across 26 completed matches in 2020, but the year as a whole has been one big defeat… and one completely of his own making.