Novak Djokovic’s controversial season over as Dominic Thiem books place in ATP Finals showpiece
Novak Djokovic’s strange and controversial tennis season is over, after Dominic Thiem eliminated him from the Nitto ATP Finals in a spectacular denouement to the first semi-final. In a year when the sport has been overshadowed by off-court events, Djokovic has never left centre stage. The pandemic was clearly the main story, but we have also seen the launch of a rival player union – the Professional Tennis Players’ Association – and latterly the domestic abuse allegations against Alexander Zverev, which Zverev denies. In every case, Djokovic has taken up positions that involved swimming against the flow. He began 2020 by throwing doubt over the value of vaccinations, and promoting a pseudo-scientific hustler in a series of Instagram chats. Then he ran an exhibition tour without social distancing that led to four players becoming infected with Covid-19, including himself. In late August, Djokovic launched his confrontational union, in defiance of the ATP Tour’s desperate requests for unity. A fortnight later, his departure from the US Open in New York was even more eye-catching, as he stormed out of the Billie Jean King Tennis Centre after being defaulted for striking a line judge with a loose ball. And now, this week, Djokovic’s final contribution to 2020’s tennis culture has been to tweet his support for Zverev. His comments appeared to suggest that Olga Sharypova’s allegations were a distraction to the more important business of hitting fuzzy yellow balls over a net. This is an intelligent man, who speaks a multiplicity of languages and always gives interesting – if not necessarily popular – answers. So how does he end up on the provocative side of the argument every time? You could say that he is unfiltered and genuine. He certainly speaks with passion. But this is hardly the way to reach out beyond his prickly group of hardcore fans. There must be a case for some kind of PR drive next year, perhaps even the hiring of a communications professional whom he trusts. This might be difficult, however. One of the qualities that marks out truly great athletes – a category to which Djokovic undoubtedly belongs – is that they follow their instincts, even when the evidence might recommend a rethink.
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