Monday 23 April 2018

Furious Djokovic denies cheating after opening title defence

Novak Djokovic on his way to victory at Wimbledon over Philipp Kohlschreiber
Novak Djokovic on his way to victory at Wimbledon over Philipp Kohlschreiber

Oliver Brown

For Novak Djokovic, the satisfaction of a proficient first-round win was soured last night as the defending Wimbledon champion faced uncomfortable accusations that he was using illegal hand signals to solicit help from his coaching team.

Just 24 hours after fending off suggestions by Boris Becker, his own coach, that he routinely received courtside instructions, he responded angrily to a further claim that other members of Team Djokovic were bending the rules by communicating with him in his native Serbian.

Twice in the past three weeks, Becker has publicly fleshed out his methods of imparting advice to his protege on court.

During an appearance on the BBC's The One Show, the German explained how the rest of Djokovic's entourage - including long-time mentor Marian Vajda - would evade detection by shouting out commands to him in Serbian, which fewer officials were likely to understand.

But Djokovic, exasperated at the gloss being taken off his straight-sets win over Philipp Kohlschreiber, issued a furious denial.

"Do you want to say I'm cheating, my team?" he asked. "I'm really trying to figure out what's behind this. Are you asking only me, or other players as well?

"There are certain ways of communication that are about encouragement, support, about understanding the moment to clap or say something that can lift my energy up or motivate me to play a particular point. But it's all within the rules.


"If I break the rules or my team does, I would be fined for that, right? The chair umpire would say, 'coaching penalty', and that's it. It has happened in my life. I accept it, of course, if my coaches Boris or Marian do say something that is against the rules.

"I have no complaint about the code violation that I would get for coaching. I just don't understand why this story is repeating."

The controversy is refusing to die, broadly speaking, because of Becker's loose tongue. By articulating his courtside messages so specifically, he has created a problem for his pupil, who is acutely aware of the rule at major tournaments that states: "Communication of any kind, audible or visible, between a player and a coach may be construed as coaching."

Tellingly, such is the scrutiny on Djokovic in light of Becker's remarks, the glances between the player and his box were negligible yesterday.

At least the match itself was a less stressful affair. Indeed, seldom in his life can Djokovic have found himself upstaged by a blue tit. Just as he was offering another demonstration of his all-court mastery, the Centre Court crowd appeared far more taken by the beaked interloper standing sentry beside the net.

The bird, which refused to move for the first set and a half of Djokovic's 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 filleting of Kohlschreiber, appreciated the impressive symmetries of this display.

"It didn't want to go away," he admitted, relieved not be to asked a loaded question. "It was a really funny moment."

He did not play like a man who had been off the lawns for a year. Djokovic adores grass but this summer he has avoided any Wimbledon warm-up, in favour of frolicking with baby son Stefan on the beach to expiate the agony of defeat in the French Open final. Clearly, the break was restorative, so seamlessly did Djokovic slip back into the guise of world No 1 with this dominant victory.

The traditional ritual here, of the past year's winner opening play on Centre Court, rather appealed to him. "The cradle of our sport," he called the place, after he spent 10 minutes amiably signing autographs, all with barely a bead of sweat on his brow.

Each time Djokovic looked fleetingly threatened in a set, he shifted up from third gear to seize the decisive break. In the early rounds of a major, there can be no surer hallmark of greatness. And Kohlschreiber, as the highest-ranked player in the men's draw outside the 32 seeds, was the most awkward first opponent Djokovic could have faced.

Never was Djokovic more in his element than when delivering the sumptuous one-two punch to wrap up the second set. First, he executed the most delicate lob on the run. Then came the shot of the match, as he not only retrieved a fearsome drive into the backhand corner but lashed it back down the line for a winner.

If a rusty Djokovic can dismantle the world's 33rd best player at this kind of canter, it bodes ill for his rivals.

On the court, he already looks a model of serenity. Away from it, he simply needs Herr Becker to keep quiet for a while.

Elsewhere, Nick Kyrgios showed little contrition yesterday at the All-England Championships after he turned the air blue on Court No 2 with his latest outburst.

The Australian firebrand, who defeated Rafael Nadal at last year's Wimbledon, disputed a line call during his comfortable three-set victory over the Argentine Diego Schwartzman, and was then heard to shout "dirty scum".

The 20-year-old denied that his angry riposte was directed at any of the officials.

And when asked if he feared he might be fined for his comments, he added: "It wouldn't bother me one bit. I play my sport the way I play it, I'm not going to change. I think the sport needs characters. It's good when the crowd see someone raw."

A number of tournament officials were sitting at the back of the press conference room following the 6-0, 6-2, 7-6 victory, but he remained unrepentant.

"I knew you guys would ask me about it," he said. "You get caught up in the heat of the moment. I thought the call was wrong.

"I wasn't referring to the ref, it was towards myself."

When pressed to explain why anyone would call themselves "dirty scum" Kyrgios, whom Andy Murray defeated in the quarter-final of this year's Australian Open, was dismissive. "Why are you so caught up in this question?" he asked. "I said it because I can." (© Daily Telegraph, London)


Live, BBC 2 /Setanta Irl, 11.30

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