Video: Novak Djokovic ball-boy rant heralds the age of rage
Novak Djokovic fixes the camera with a solemn, almost hangdog expression. “I want to reflect on a bad moment,” he says, opening his palm towards us, as if begging our clemency. “Sometimes, emotions get the best of you.”
A grainy phone video on one’s Facebook page makes an unlikely confession box. But despite winning the Miami Open title just a few hours earlier, Djokovic was evidently still searching for closure. After losing the second set against Andy Murray, a furious Djokovic had stalked back to his chair screaming at his box, angrily snatching his towel from the ball-boy, who for his part looked thoroughly traumatised by the experience.
“I sincerely hope that he forgives me,” Djokovic continues in the video. “I really apologise.”
Here is the incident:
Greg Rusedski reckons that Djokovic’s anger is part of what makes him such a great champion. And given the importance of mental conditioning in tennis, it is perhaps only natural that the world No 1 would want to steal a march.
We can well imagine the sort of lengths to which the famously enterprising Djokovic might go in an attempt to cultivate his ire: the rage smoothies, the daily bile-duct massages, the custom-built pressurised anger chamber where liquid crystal speakers play Serbian nationalist insults for several hours a day. All speculation, of course.
And yet Djokovic is really just one part of a wider movement. In February, Germany’s Andrea Petkovic, about as pleasant and cerebral a player as you could hope to meet on tour, narrowly escaped disqualification after throwing her racquet at a line judge.
The Australian Open, meanwhile, was one of the great racquet-smashing tournaments in living memory. With apologies to Nick Kyrgios, Grigor Dimitrov and Mikhail Youzhny, Latvia’s Ernests Gulbis undoubtedly leads this particular field: a craftsman so nihilistically elegant that his racquet-smashes should really be set to classical music. In any case, there is more than enough evidence to suggest that we may be entering a golden era of tennis rage.
Of course, no such discussion can begin without a nod to John McEnroe, the genre’s true standard-bearer. But without wishing to corrode a reputation that has earned him literally dozens of advertising deals, there is a tame, almost cartoonish quality to McEnroe’s tantrums in retrospect: the entitled petulance of a child who has just been denied lemonade.
“I swear to God I’ll f---ing take the ball and shove it down your f---ing throat,” Serena Williams screamed at a quivering US Open line judge in 2009. Next to which, McEnroe’s outburst – “Chalk flew up, you incompetent fool!” – seems a little meek in comparison.
Perhaps it is only now, as the Federer/Nadal duopoly finally recedes, that the age of rage can blossom. For all their many fighting qualities, Federer and Nadal are simply too polite, too well-raised, too respectful of each other. If Federer had not been a tennis player, he could have had his pick of the careers market: croupier, chalet architect, blazer salesman, praline broker, whalebone dealer, cufflink designer, gold leaf embroiderer, monorail tycoon, marzipan chef, Poirot villain. Federer is too intrinsically content with himself ever to be truly angry.
For Djokovic, by contrast, tennis was his ticket out of war-torn Serbia, his promise of a better life. And as the sport’s centre of gravity shifts away from the country clubs and the manicured lawns of the western hemisphere, as stakes and temperatures rise, it is possible to interpret tennis’s new anger as a belated embrace of modernity.
But watch Djokovic’s on-court rant again. And what comes through most strongly is not a primal, animalistic rage, but a certain thespian flourish. No swear words are used. No racquets are broken. “It’s not what you said, Novak,” the umpire admonishes him. “It’s the way you said it.” Needless to say, the red mist clears with remarkable alacrity, and Djokovic wins the deciding set 6-0.
This is not the violent, explosive anger of a man who has temporarily lost all function.
It is the controlled, knowing micro-anger of a man who has just tried to peel a banana, only to find that the stem refuses to snap.
And the suspicion is that Djokovic – a man who leaves no detail to chance – does this sort of anger better than anyone else.