Novak Djokovic talks New York drama, Nadal in Rome, and his two biggest tennis goals
Of US Open default: “I will not forget it but I have to accept it, move on, and embrace it as a great lesson”
It was one of the most dramatic moments in a US Open that has just crowned a brand new Major champion, Dominic Thiem.
The world No1 and former US champion Novak Djokovic was defaulted at 5-6 down in the opening set of his fourth-round match against Pablo Carreno Busta, the result of accidentally hitting a line-umpire in the throat.
So as he settled down to face media questions for the first time since his New York exit, it was inevitable that, before addressing his hopes and aspirations at the postponed Rome Masters, he would have to talk at some length about those unexpected events.
“Of course, it was a shock to finish the US Open the way it was finished. First time in my career that something like this happens… But when you hit the ball like that, you have a chance to hit someone and the rules are clear, so I accepted it, and I had to move on… Of course, I did not forget about it. I don’t think I will ever forget about it.”
He had, he said, afterwards checked on the recovery of the line-judge, and she told him she was fine. He went on:
“I felt sorry to cause the shock and drama to her because she did not deserve that in any way.”
Of course, there had been some weighty matters at stake that were undone by his careless behaviour. He came into the US Open in pursuit of his 18th Major title—he trails Rafael Nadal by just two and Roger Federer by only three, and his two biggest rivals were not in the draw.
He was on a 28-match winning streak, having steered Serbia to the ATP Cup title, and then claiming the Australian Open, Dubai and Cincinnati titles. And he could have done his campaign to extend his weeks at No1 no harm at all by winning the US Open. There were big points to gain, given that he had lost in the fourth round in New York last year.
And it was also clear, as it has been in previous interviews, that he is a man on a mission, a man in pursuit of the biggest records. Not only is he within striking distance of that 20-Major record of Federer, he is also chasing the Swiss star’s record number of weeks at No1, which stands at 310.
By the end of the Rome Masters next weekend, Djokovic will have overtaken the second man in that list, Pete Sampras, to reach 287 weeks. And as a bonus, winning the Rome title would also take him ahead of the record he shares with Nadal for Masters titles. They currently stand at 35 apiece.
He makes no bones about his aspirations.
“Well Pete was my childhood idol, so surpassing his record is very special to me. I always looked up to him and I always wished to be as mentally strong and resilient as he is, especially in the big tournaments. He’s mentally one of the most composed and toughest players to hold a racket. Him being a No1 for so many weeks proves how tough he was, and this is one of my two biggest professional goals, to reach the record—surpass Roger’s record for longest [at] No1—and win as many Slams as possible.
“So I’m working towards that, and I’m in a good position right now. Hopefully I can stay healthy and continue to play well.”
If there is one beneficial side-effect to Djokovic’s early departure from New York, it has been the extra time afforded to recover from jet lag and to prepare for the difficult transition from hard courts to clay. He admitted:
“It’s great that I have a tournament right after that happened [in New York], because I feel like the earlier I get back in a competition mode, the faster I’ll overcome that memory and kind of re-programme, so I’m hoping for the best. I spent some time with my family and looked at my shoulder as well that I hurt a little bit in that last game.”
His awkward fall in the closing stages of that opening set in Arthur Ashe stadium had certainly not helped his frustration at being broken by Carreno Busta, for he jolted his shoulder into the bargain.
But even aside from his early arrival in Rome, Djokovic has every reason to expect a good run in Rome: He has won the title there four times before, and one of the biggest clay exponents, Thiem, pulled out due to the impossible turn-around after the US Open final.
However, there is still world No2 Nadal, who will be bidding for a 10th Rome title, and then for an astonishing 13th French Open at the end of September. Djokovic knows Nadal is the man to beat, and all the more so because the Spaniard opted out of the North American hard-court swing to focus on his beloved clay in Europe.
Djokovic was frank:
“Rafa obviously decided to stay on clay and practise. I mean, surely that gives him more advantage, but even if he didn’t practice for that long on clay, he would still be the No1 favourite in Roland Garros or any other clay tournament because he’s Rafa… And playing on clay, you know, he’s the ultimate challenge.”
The draw in Rome, though, has been kinder to Djokovic than to his rival. Nadal’s first opponent is Carreno Busta, who went on to reach the semis in New York, and would have been seeded had the timing between tournaments been different.
Nadal’s first seed is Cincinnati runner-up Milos Raonic, and Fabio Fognini, Diego Schwartzman and Stefanos Tsitsipas join him in the bottom half.
Djokovic’s first opponent will be qualifier Tennys Sandgren or wild card Salvatore Caruso, while his first scheduled seed, Felix Auger-Aliassime, lost his opening match. Instead Djokovic will play compatriot Filip Krajinovic. Stan Wawrinka looms in the quarters, but the biggest challenges may come from unseeded men such as Kei Nishikori, Alex de Minaur and Borna Coric.
However, it is hard to see Djokovic falling short of a final showdown against Nadal for the second straight year.
One thing is for sure, he will not be making the same mistake in Rome and Paris as he made in New York, even though he assured the media that he could make no promises about the rest of his career.
“Well there are things that are just unpredictable in a way. I am working mentally and emotionally as hard as I’m working physically. Trying to be the best version of myself on and off court. I understand that I have outbursts, and this is kind of the personality and the player that I have always been, you know.
“Obviously went through ups and downs in my career, managing to control my emotions more or less. But you’re alone out there. It’s a lot of intensity and a lot of pressure. [So] I cannot promise or I cannot guarantee that I will never ever do anything similar to that in my life. I don’t know.
“I mean, I definitely am going to try my best, obviously. But anything’s possible. So I’m going to take this as profoundly as possible as a big lesson… You have to move on and take the most out of it so you can be better.”
The action has already begun at the Foro Italico, with two more seeds from the top half losing out in the first round: Cristian Garin lost to Coric, and Karen Khachanov to Casper Ruud. However, unseeded Marin Cilic advanced to a stand-out match against No6 seed David Goffin.
In the bottom half, Ugo Humbert beat Kevin Anderson to set a meeting with home favourite Fognini, and wild card teenager Jannik Sinner beat Benoit Paire to set a blockbuster Round 2 contest with Tsitsipas.