Cult of Personality
by Pete Bodo
September 19, 2011
It all began for Novak Djokovic at the Belgrade Arena—nine months of almost entirely uninterrupted success, glory, honors and accolades. And the big question right after the Serbia vs. Argentina Davis Cup semifinal ended yesterday is, "Will it all end right there where it began nine months earlier?"
That was an understandable question, given the way Djokovic yelped and went down in a heap while trailing Juan Martin del Potro 7-6 (5), 3-0 in the decisive match of the Davis Cup semifinal. Minutes later, still grimacing in pain, Djokovic hobbled off the floor to a standing ovation from his countrymen, among whom he walks as a giant among men.
Djokovic had acute pain in his lower back and rib area—pain that he later said he had managed at the U.S. Open, pain that had contributed to his decision to forgo playing singles on the first, ultimately disastrous (for Serbia) day of the tie, pain that seemed tolerable enough for Djokovic to step in as a substitute for Viktor Troicki to play the critical fourth rubber of the tie against Juan Martin del Potro, with the Serbian team's survival hanging in the balance.
In an astonishing show of either superiority or hubris, the Serbs decided that even at "50 or 60" percent effectiveness, Djokovic had a better chance of beating del Potro than did Troicki. Maybe Serb captain Bogdan Obradovic and his crew were just throwing numbers around loosely, but if I were Troicki I would have been more than a little bummed out by that analysis. And whatever else may or may not obtain, the one thing about which we can be sure is that Troicki would at least have played the match out to its natural conclusion, even if it was to be a swift and merciless one. For del Potro came to the ball ready to dance.
So that leaves the question hanging: was the decision to play Djokovic a wise one for all concerned—including the injured Djokovic? And who made the final call, given the potential risk of playing with a back injury? As Obradovic said afterward, "It was the decision of Novak and the whole team. On Saturday he practiced and felt a little pain. Then this (Sunday) morning he practiced and said he wanted to play. When the first player in the world is asking you to play, you let him."
Djokovic himself was less politic: "At the end of the day it was my decision and it backfired.”
There are any number of lessons to be taken away from this, most of them having to do with the perils of buying into the cult of personality. There are overtones of that in newcomer Serbia's experience in, and of, tennis. Djokovic is already an iconic figure in his homeland, his name synonymous with a game for which almost everyone in Serbia is now crazy—and almost only because of Djokovic.
There's a price Djokovic pays for being such a towering figure on the Serbian landscape. I think he felt a great deal of pressure to play, and he had a great desire to perform, to reward those legions of fierce fans in whose eyes he's a sort of modern-day conquering hero. We don't really know how big a physical risk Djokovic took by playing that match. And while there's no reason to overreact or panic, bear in mind that it was back problems that laid-low two of the most promising players of recent generations, Marcelo Rios and Miloslav Mecir. And Djokovic can't be looking forward to the Asian and fall indoor circuits, given the twist in his back and the plot of the tennis year.
Beyond that, any Davis Cup tie that ends with an abbreviated fourth match (here's an assignment for you: When was the last time a Davis Cup tie was decided by a retirement due to injury?) can be called a fair mess. And one of the takeaways in this one is that despite the closeness of this group and otherwise admirable leadership displayed by Djokovic, the Serbs are not quite ready to fly without having Djokovic at the point of their formation.
Troicki was handled pretty easily by David Nalbandian in the first rubber of the tie and Janko Tisparevic, who had a great U.S. Open and is knocking on the door of the Top 10, was unable to get even that "good try" set off Del Potro. The Argentines came into Belgrade with that assassin gleam in their eyes and in no mood to help celebrate—or further—Serbia's aborning tennis ambitions. They were all business, which is another reason why Djokovic and the Serbian team—and fans—might have been better served if their big dog had decided to stay sleeping on the porch. Nobody in his right mind would have criticized Djokovic for bowing out of this one—not after day one ended 2-0 for Argentina.
Argentina, we know, is by far the greatest tennis power not to have won the Davis Cup. The Argentines, being a people who set great store by how their national teams perform, are well aware of the situation—as are the players who wear the baby-blue and white. For Nalbandian, locking down that Davis Cup trophy for the first time would cement his legacy—and go a long way to tempering criticism of his periodic but career-long lack of dedication, resolve, and fitness. And del Potro, who's already eclipsed Nalbandian in the record books despite being just 23 (Nalbandian will turn 30 just days after the Davis Cup final in Spain) could join Guillermo Vilas and Gabriela Sabatini as a player of "national hero" status should he be the main man on a winning team.
The contrast between Argentina and Serbia is interesting, and it sheds light on the dilemma of the latter nation. Del Potro is a Grand Slam champion (U.S. Open, 2009) and, potentially, the next multi-slam champion on the tour. But not only has he not had to carry Argentina (or explain to his countrymen just what Davis Cup is), he's had to put up with the veteran Nalbandian's proprietary attitude toward the team—and Nalbandian has just enough street cred at home (thanks to a excellent if not brilliant all-around record) to claim leadership.
The Argentines were made to pay for the conflicts engendered by the clash between del Potro, the threatening, gifted newcomer, and Nalbandian, the salty veteran. But they seem to have sorted that out (albeit not until they bickered their way to a humiliating loss to Spain [without the services of Rafael Nadal] when hosting the final in 2008). Now, Argentina seems ready to claim that elusive, first championship.
"I feel sorry for Djokovic because he has had an incredible season and I hope he recovers quickly," del Potro said on Sunday. "He must have felt a little tired after returning from New York, he made a very good challenge today but I was very confident with my serve and forehand and delighted that we have gone into the final. . . we are going to Spain knowing that they are the favorites but hopeful that we can win finally the Davis Cup."
Note that del Potro didn't back away from taking appropriate credit for the way he played, nor from implicitly acknowledging that it's high time Argentina secured that maiden Davis Cup championship. But bear in mind that the other U.S. Open finalist in Davis Cup action over the weekend looked pretty good on a home court, much like the one on which Spain will host the final. Rafael Nadal took Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to the woodshed in the other semi and gave them each of them a fearsome licking that neither is likely to forget soon.
Argentina will have its work cut out, come December.