Novak Djokovic: In Search Of Priorities, Results, And The Glimpses Of Irony Peeking Through

MADRID, May 9, 2019 (by Sharada Rajagopalan)

In a match dominated by serve, Novak Djokovic claimed a masterful 6-1, 7-6(2) win over Jeremy Chardy in the third round of the Mutua Madrid Open on Thursday. This was the World No. 1’s 13th win over the Frenchman – a known opponent – and extended his 100 per cent winning record against him. More important, the 31-year-old Serbian also maintained a clean sheet of sets won against Chardy, with today’s straight-set win giving him 30 victorious sets on the trot.

All of these statistics, then, helped reinforce Djokovic’s presence as a possible title winner despite his premature losses in each of the three Masters 1000 (Indian Wells, Miami and Monte Carlo) held in the season up to now. Likewise, Djokovic’s victory also had a specific connotation going beyond his results in 2019 and farther the realm of the tournament. That of redirecting attention back towards his on-court performances from the off-court saga involving former Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) board member Justin Gimelstob.

Actions, Reactions and Consequences

Ever since Gimelstob’s former friend Randall Kaplan accused the former tennis pro of assaulting him on Halloween night on 31st October 2018 and approached the court, the 42-year-old (then) continuing with his role in the ATP did not go well among everyone. The ATP Board voted against ousting Gimelstob in its meeting held in December 2018 and during the 2019 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, matters came to a head when the ATP Board – including Gimelstob – vetoed the extension of contract of present Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Chris Kermode beyond 2019. The influence of the American in Kermode’s slated exit, who is said to have a great rapport with Djokovic, was unmistakeably felt. More importantly, it also raised scepticism about the sport’s administration that someone who had been accused of felony assault was still able to wield so much clout within it.

Needless to say, following Gimelstob’s ‘No Contest’ plea before the court – after having initially claimed that he was not guilty of assault which resulted in him receiving 60 days of labour and three years’ probation on 22nd April, it was expected that the ATP Player Council would step in and tilt the fast-slipping narrative. However, their continued dithering beginning with Vasek Pospisil, who first commented about the ATP board being “fortunate” to have the former world no. 71 for another term and then withdrew his statements with the addendum that he did not know the full details of what had legally transpired.

Pospisil’s words could still have been brushed aside. But Djokovic’s seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of support to Gimelstob, on the other hand, was (and has been) that much hard to accept or digest. First, when it came to light that John Isner’s mentor had taken a trip down to Madrid from the United States to intimate the 15-time Grand Slam champion about his decision to resign from ATP Board membership of his own volition. And, when Djokovic looked to reiterate his fellow board member Pospisil’s term about Gimelstob being an ‘asset’ to the players in his time as a board member.

The Aftermath

In his capacity as an individual, Djokovic is well entitled to his opinion, and to maintaining friendships with whomever he wants. Nonetheless, in his position of power, the 31-year-old needs to separate his personal relationships from his mantle of responsibility.

“Under the circumstances it was a wise decision from his side and it’s been a very hot topic in the last period… But at the same time, these are kind of unfortunate circumstances and he needs to go back and deal with that, deal with that case and try to find the right balance and the right state of mind before he eventually tries to come back,” Djokovic said, his words indicating he was open to welcoming Gimelstob with open arms once the issue had been dealt with by the passage of time.

Now, this, was unbecoming. Firstly, because the ATP Player Council president looked like he was relieved of not having to take a decision that would go against his friend. Secondly, because it meant that Djokovic stood on the fence when he needed to pick a side – either for or against Gimelstob – without worrying about the repercussions that would follow each decision of his. And, thirdly because, his words and his stance were a distraction he did not need coming plumb in the middle of the season with unexpected losses dotting the trajectory of his year.

Where Djokovic the administrator looked shaky in administrative prioritising, with these wins in the Spanish capital, Djokovic the player has proved when needed, he can put everything to one side and focus on what is most important. As much as it has been fun to watch him put his opponents through their paces, the irony reflecting back at him is also harder to avoid.