I’ve been watching Novak Djokovic play tennis for more than a decade, and I’ve never known quite what to make of him. He’s hard to read, which is strange, because few players seem so anxious, even desperate, to mean something. Still — you think of Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, and a clear sense of persona comes flooding through. You think of Djokovic and your brain starts buzzing with contradictions.
He’s been, at various moments, a giddy clown, mimicking other players for laughs; a peevish also-ran, faking injury rather than fighting through a loss; a spoiler; a moralist; a diet guru. He’s been, in some places and to some people, a figure of vaguely religious significance. He’s been a politician, moderating pronouncements for the cameras. He’s been a doting husband and father. He’s been a smirking patriarch. He’s been a loser. A genius. A fool.
Djokovic is out at Wimbledon, having retired with an elbow injury in the second set of his quarterfinal match against Tomas Berdych. Don’t be fooled, though — his absence is just another persona, another contradiction. Through it, he’ll loom larger over the final weekend at the All England Club than most players could manage with their presence.
It’s been that way all year. Djokovic is nowhere, a mysterious casualty of no one’s sure exactly what. At the same time, he’s everywhere, like a king on sick leave. Like an unanswered question.
It was just about a year ago, remember, that Djokovic was enjoying a merciless tear through men’s tennis. He’d won four majors in a row, six of the last eight. Through every postmatch interview, he grinned that amused and satisfied grin.
How did you feel out there, Novak?
How do you make it look so easy, Novak?
When will you run for office in Serbia, Novak?
Then, just when it seemed he couldn’t be stopped, just when people were talking seriously about an easy swerve around Nadal and Federer in the all-time major standings, something went hideously wrong. It’s still not entirely clear what. But it started last summer, right about when Sam Querrey shocked him at Wimbledon in the third round.
That ended the streak of majors. The No. 1 ranking fell in November. He lost in the first round at the Olympics, in the second round at the Australian Open. He made the quarterfinals at the French Open, but he was obliterated there in straight sets by Dominic Thiem. In the final set, he didn’t win a game.
The way he’d won before, he lost now. On the court, he looked not so much miserable as crazed. He’d always been tightly wound, a performer, a sideways glancer, at ease only in those brief intervals when the crowd bathed him in adoration. Now he added to this root nervousness a kind of wild-eyed, sped-up fidgetiness, like someone who’s got the jitters because he can’t sleep.
What happened, Novak?
Novak, the crowd-pleaser, never fires anyone. He cares too much about being the good guy, the benevolent patron — that’s a persona that matters to him. When he wants to be rid of an employee, what happens is that they “part ways,” by “mutual agreement,” and the employee releases a glowing statement about what a privilege it was to work with Djokovic.
In May he parted ways, by mutual agreement, with his entire coaching staff.
What‘s wrong, Novak?
What was most bizarre, throughout this phase of decline, was how little anyone seemed able to explain it. Novak himself was tongue-tied. “It was nothing physical,” he said in August, in the clearest explanation he ever offered for his wipeout. “It was some other things that I was going through privately.”
Oh, of course: some private … things. The tennis media is almost ritually circumspect. Tabloids have speculated furiously about the state of Djokovic’s marriage. Message-board posters have built elaborate theories on Jelena Djokovic’s air of wounded dignity in the player’s box. John McEnroe caused a minor dust up last week when he compared Djokovic’s downfall to that of Tiger Woods. But for the most part, the closer you get to the game itself, the more pundits have framed Djokovic’s nose-dive in terms that are careful and vague and respectful.
The vagueness may be appropriate. Djokovic’s marriage, if that was really the issue, is none of my business. (Which doesn’t mean I don’t find it fascinating.) It was disorienting, though, to see a great player’s decline take place inside this void of abashed euphemism.
Djokovic’s collapse helped both Federer and Nadal win majors. It made Murray the No. 1 player in the world. Yet when we try to explain it, it’s a weird blur, an afterimage of gossip. It’s left Djokovic’s identity even less clear — the rare instance when adversity seems to leave us knowing less, not more, about a player.
I learned a lot, along the way, about the steps Djokovic was taking to reverse course. At one point he hired a guru specializing in long hugs; a kind of New Age questiness is another one of his personas. I didn’t learn much at all about what was wrong, or how it felt.
He was looking better, before the injury this week. Is he on the right track? He won the Eastbourne Wimbledon warm-up tournament, though he beat an awfully weak field. He brought in Andre Agassi, who knows from comebacks, as an unpaid adviser. But now Djokovic says he may be out for months, and also that he’s been dealing with this elbow issue for a year and a half. That might clarify things, if it were true. But he’s also repeatedly denied being injured.
I wonder what this has been like for him. For a player as tensely strung as Djokovic, as eager to be admired, it must have been excruciating to find himself at the center of an amorphous scandal. Other players publish memoirs; Djokovic published a diet and lifestyle book. He is someone who wants less to be known than to be right. This helps to explain the shifting personas: He needs to be seen by the cameras, but he wants them to catch him from a certain angle, in a certain light.
So maybe this world of controlled euphemism, this half-public semi-privacy, can help me make sense of his character after all. In any case, it’s the world he’s made.
Brian Phillips is the author of the forthcoming Impossible Owls: Essays.