Having emerged from the triumvirate of the big 3 as the ultimate contenders for the year end #1 ranking (with all due respect to Andy Murray), it now comes time, for those of us with little to write about in the blogosphere, to turn to the age old endeavor of shit-stirring. The topic this time is the presumed frosty relationship between Federer and Djokovic, which over the course of the last 6 years (yes, they've been competing with each other for 6 years!), has gone through its ups and downs, and at the end of this year culminates in a struggle to reach the north pole of the ATP first, and alone.
There is clearly respect between Federer and Nadal, the latter of which has always professed his admiration of the other, with the former only recently appearing to concede a comfort with sharing the greatest esteem in the game. Between Djokovic and Nadal, there rarely appears to be any antipathy - even in the midst of Nadal's desprate 7-match losing streak to his (other) nemesis, there didn't appear to be any hard feelings between the two - unusual for a rivalry which has been so unbalanced in both directions at various times.
Which leads us to what appears to be the frosty Fedjoker relationship - though they both deny it, and few specific qualms have shed light on the true nature of the distance between the two, it always appears to be there...lurking...just waiting for the light of day to reveal itself. Below is a chronology of what, at best, could be considered circumstantial evidence of a rift. Having said that, circumstantial cases are made in the judicial system all the time. So here goes:
2006 Davis Cup - Switzerland
During the relegation tie with Serbia/Montenegro, Djokovic played his first rubber against Stanislav Wawrinka, a grueling 5-set match that saw Djokovic prevail in the end. The match also saw the opening salvo in a stealth war of words between the two ever since, where Federer labelled the young player "a joke" after making multiple calls to the trainer during the match. This year Federer went out of his way to explain that he was simply irritated that his friend (Wawrinka) had been beaten despite the calls to the trainer, and that the rift was addressed a month or so later in Madrid (when it hosted an in indoor Masters 1000 tournament - which Federer won, by the way).
Federer went on to obliterate Djokovic in their second career head to head, in 3 straight sets to clinch the tie for Switzerland.
This was not a new or isolated complaint against Djokovic and his penchant for calling for the trainer, who has since been accused at various times by multiple players (including Tommy Robredo and Andy Roddick) of being something of hypochondriac following and preceding their respective matches with the Djoker at the 2008 US Open. By then, Djokovic had already earned a reputation of being quick to call for help and making miraculous recoveries, and quick to retire from matches. Both players so noted with disdain.
It's also worth noting further that the comment following the match with Wawrinka by Federer, was the first time any player of note made any complaints to that effect, so there could be a question of whether Federer actually initiated this reputation, or at the very least paved the way for it. To be fair, Djokovic did little to contradict it over the next 4 years, but it should also be noted that both Robredo and Roddick are of Federer's generation, and their opinions might be considered today to be somewhat old school by the standard of modern players.
Nevertheless the plot thickened.
By the time they met in the final of the Rogers Cup in Montreal, Federer had beaten Djokovic the first 4 times they'd played, and rarely been troubled by his game. Thus, it would have come as a surprise to most that the tennis yokozuna, who had won 2 of the first 3 majors that year, reached all three major finals, had just won his fifth Wimbledon title in a row, and enjoyed a huge lead in the race for #1, lost so close to the US Open to Djokovic.
In the post match press conference, Federer was asked if he saw and respected the similarities between his game and Djokovic's, as compared to the differences between his and Nadal's and his response was:
"No, not really. I mean, he plays like many other players on tour. You know, I mean, he's steady off the baseline, he's got a pretty good serve. But...nothing outrageous in his game. Always pretty predictable, which is a good thing. Yeah, you get some good rallies against him because he scrambles well, moves to the ball well, moves the ball around very nicely. Yeah, I enjoy playing against him."
Although there's nothing directly insulting in that statement, it's hardly laudatory. And notable is a lack of appreciation for 1) any comparison to his own game, 2) Djokovic having beaten the top 3 players in the same tournament (Roddick, Nadal and Federer), or 3) winning his second Masters 1000 of the year (he had already won Miami). So one could hardly argue that he played like "my other players on tour" - after all, had many others on tour won two Masters 1000's that year? And if you didn't know any better, you'd almost interpret his throw away statement, that he enjoys playing him, because he's predictable and there's nothing outrageous in his game, as a euphemism for the guy being easy pickings!
He went on to say, in assessing his game that day that:
"I could never really breathe. Maybe that was a bit my problem today. It's such a pity, you know, when I start a match against a player like him serving so bad in the opening game."
Now, if I were Djokovic, I wouldn't take too kindly to being referred to as, "a player like him" - if it were meant as a compliment, it would be prefaced or modified with, "a tough player like him", or "a player who returns as well as him" - but in the absence thereof, it just seemed he was lamenting that conditions and an unusually bad serving day was the cause of the result, and not anything Djokovic did!
Djokovic for his part didn't really take the bait that day. Although, there was something of an interesting response to the next question about learning what it takes to be #1 from playing Roger:
"Yes, I learn every time I play against Roger or Rafa. I learn from those matches always something new, try to, you know, improve on some things which I need to improve."
Two interesting notes - he refers to Roger and Rafa, but at that time, Rafa hadn't come close to reaching #1, he had been a distant #2 for almost 3 years, and secondly, to state so plainly that he was on the road to reaching #1 while Federer was still at the height of his powers was an extraordinary admission of his intent. Few players at the time talked about actually usurping Federer, rather than waiting out his dominance. Even if the Djoker put it off for at least 3 years (one-year off and from the right player, as it turned out).
The last salvo, although it was meant in jest, was this telling exchange:
"Q. Do you think it should still be called the Roger's Cup?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Somebody scream during the match, it's the Roger's Cup. I think it was the third set. It was pretty funny. Yeah, nothing against the sponsor, but obviously I'm going to have to arrange somebody to call Novak's Cup for next year."
Flushing Meadow, New York 2007
Here the Djoker finally made his first major final, and despite having beaten Federer a month earlier in Canada, was a clear underdog in the final. By that time, Djokovic had endeared himself to the press with his underwear modeling and player imitations, and despite rumblings from some corners, he continued to press on with his game and his off-court antics. But note in the next press exchange how he first tacitly acknowledged, then feigned ignorance of the murmur of dissent to his routines:
"Q. How do the players feel? Like Nadal, has he come up to you, or Roddick, I know you do him, Maria, have they made any comments to you about impersonations?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Yeah, yeah.
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, I'll keep that is as secret.
Q. They're not mad about it? They're not offended?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: No. Everybody accepts it positively.
Q. Is there anyone who has been really hard to capture, their mannerisms?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, the untouchable one, Roger. Well, he's too perfect for my style. I cannot. Plus, I don't have a long hair. I hope he doesn't hear this."
By this time, even light-hearted ribbing of Federer was a strict no-no in the hierarchy of professional tennis - though you'd have to assume there were a number of players who would like to have had a word or two about him, apparently nobody but Djokovic dared to do so. Furthermore, it appeared that he was being less than forthcoming - there were already clips of him on youtube imitating his Hairness. This was Federer's response to a question about them (not his in particular):
"Well, in the locker room he's always very respectful toward me, you know. He's pretty quiet. I only hear stuff. I didn't see the stuff he did on court the other day. I didn't see what apparently he did in the locker room either. For me, these things, you know, I only hear. But people don't really talk about it. I know some guys weren't happy. I know some guys might think it's funny...He's walking a tightrope, for sure."
Walking a tightrope? Between what and what? Or whom? And specifically, who doesn't like it? Obviously one of the players being imitated, right? And there weren't (at that point) very many - namely Nadal, Roddick, Nalbandian (of whom, when he was asked to imitate him, the Djoker simply distended his belly) McEnroe (retired, not in the locker room), Ivanisevic (retired, not in the locker room) and Federer. Maybe there were others, but who, at that time, on the ATP tour was sufficiently well known to be the subject of an impersonation that some may not have liked?
Though he tried hard to conceal it, it's obvious there were a couple of things bothering Federer about Djokovic. And this was, in all likelihood, and in no small part, due to comments revealed later...
Here, Djokovic finally got the better of Federer in a major, and here also, began the inclusion of the Djokovic entourage in the simmering tete a tete between the two. First and foremost, Djokovic beat Federer in straight sets, and prevented him from having any chance at the grand slam - something he'd had the previous two years, and once before in 2004. But more of a catalyst to the tele-confrontation, were the remarks of Djokovic's parents.
Although Djokovic's mother, who speaks English better than the father, did most of the talking (the content of which Djokovic later distanced himself), both parents got in their shots at Federer, in support of their son. At first glance, it's no surprise that parents would be proud of, and trying to instill confidence in, their son - all parents would, under the circumstances. But who would do it so publicly, and so brashly? Of her son, vis a vis Federer, Mrs. Djokovic famously had the following to say:
"As we said, 'The king is dead, long live the king',"
She went on:
"Because the last time the US Open they played, my husband said, 'This is the last time he win against Novak'. Because Novak was making the points with Federer's weapon. He told him that he is so mature that he can win, like him (Federer)."
Eventually, she went on to predict that her son would reach #1, and that this would prove to be the first of many majors - of course this was nothing new, but to be so eager to dance on the grave of the man to whom her boy king gaped to his heir, had to be irritating to Federer. If nothing else, he had to feel it was somewhat premature. In fact both Federer and Mrs. Djokovic turned out to be right - it was the first of many, and he did reach #1, but it was also (3 years) premature.
The seeds were sown, nonetheless.
Later, when Federer revealed his diagnosis of mono, explaining he didn't mention it until Dubai (in March) because he didn't want to detract from Djokovic's victory in Australia, it had to raise a few eyebrows in the Djokovic clan, not the least of which because what he professed to avoid, was exactly what he did. And (hard to believe it was coincidentally) after Mrs. Djokovic decided to declare Federer dead. After all, he didn't appear to have mono against anyone else in Australia, so why would it have been a factor against sweet little Nole?
Perhaps because Djokovic won.
In fact, I would argue that there didn't appear to be anything wrong with Federer physically at that time. He beat a plucky Fabrice Santoro, a difficult Tomas Berdych, and a resurgent James Blake in succession, playing some brilliant tennis, with no inkling that there was anything wrong with him or his game. However, in his defense: 1) if there were something wrong, he'd hardly want to share that with the world and 2) if it were the mono it would have few outward symptoms to the untrained/unknowing eye...but nothing justifies announcing that excuse as he did.
If I were Djokovic, I wouldn't have liked it one bit.
Monte Carlo, 2008
Having lost to Djokovic in Melbourne earlier in the year, and having certainly heard the previous comments from Djokovic's parents thereafter, it wouldn't surprise anyone if Federer were even more motivated to win their encounter in Monte Carlo in the first big tournament of the European clay court season. The surprise was the ease with which Djokovic conceded the match, after complaining of dizziness and retiring because of what would later be (somewhat unjustly) characterized as a "sore throat". The tame resistance he put up, and the resulting hollow win, would certainly have irritated a man who would have been motivated to settle the score. But nothing would irritate him more than what the Djokovic entourage came up with along the way.
In the middle of their match, with friends of the enemy seated in sufficient proximity to be heard at barely their "indoor voices", a shot from Djokovic was called long on the baseline, from which Federer had retreated to position himself for his reply, before the call was made. Having immediately moved, without prompting, towards the mark to check it, as do almost all professional players under the circumstances, Federer had the pleasure of hearing the Serbian peanut gallery call for him to "check the mark!"
What followed was an angry glance at the box, an indignant shout in their direction to, "be quiet, okay?", a begrudging, if not defiant swipe at the mark (indicating that it had indeed hit the line), a continued glare in their direction, as he lined himself up for a replay of the point and sado-masochistically bludgeoning the bottoms of his shoes with his racquet - ostensibly to release caked clay in the tread. It's worth noting that a player's entourage, by the rules of the tour, have no more right to engage the players in conversation than a random spectator. And any player can request that any spectator be removed from the premises, and the umpire and tournament referee have the right to grant that request - that would include the Djokovic's.
But as it were, Federer put his head down, finished the match, and had this to say when asked about it:
"Q. Was it obvious to you he was ill?
ROGER FEDERER: No. I didn't see anything anyway from my side till when he called the doctor...I didn't feel like he was playing, you know, too sick. Obviously after calling the doctor, you know...you might see some signs. But...I didn't think it was that extreme. Same as Davydenko last week. I mean, I didn't see any big signs till the moment they all of a sudden retired."
There's a palpable reluctance to confirm that Djokovic was, in any demonstrable way, hindered by his illness. Ironic, given his own contention that an unseen illness affected him in Melbourne. Furthermore, when lumping Davydenko in with Djokovic, two players who had developed a reputation for giving less than their best effort at times, Federer did neither any favors, although it may just have been because both retired against him in that tournament.
Of the incident where he told the Djokovic's to shut up - neither player was asked about it in the post-match press conference, and no player made any comments thereafter.
Having returned to the Australian Open in 2009 as the defending champion, and having suffered the ignominy of becoming the arch-villain at the US Open in 2008 (a year after endearing himself to so many at the tournament with his personality), Djokovic didn't appear to have the bollocks to fight through the physical challenge of winning in Australia. The advantage there always goes to the player with the best preparation, since it is the first major of the season, and few have had a chance to hone their games. Roddick had abundantly prepared by shedding 15+ pounds of weight, and appeared to be fit, quick and (as always) competitive as hell.
Djokovic just looked like hell and retired, not only the match, but the first major title he was defending.
And he got no sympathy from Federer, who said after dispatching del Potro in his quarterfinal:
"He's not a guy who's never given up before ... it's disappointing."
"I've only done it once in my career ... Andy totally deserved to win that match."
"I'm almost in favor of saying, you know what, if you're not fit enough, just...get out of here."
"If Novak were up two sets to love I don't think he would have retired 4-0 down in the fourth. Thanks to Andy that he retired in the end. Andy pushed him to the limits. Hats off to Andy."
Wow - 'just...get out of here'? He wouldn't have retired if he were up two sets to love? If you were Djokovic and/or his family, if the antipathy weren't already there, it would have to be now. After all, what business was it of Federer's to comment on Djokovic's health? (Save for the fact that he had been specifically asked about it). And would he have been so categorical had it been Nadal? Or would he have assumed that the injury/issue must have been severe enough to make him quit, and expressed concern?
Ironically, although Federer suggested he wouldn't have retired had he been up two sets to one, Djokovic had in fact done just that - leading two sets to one, against Nikolay Davydenko (the other oft derided retiree), in a Davis Cup match in February of 2008 Djokovic retired with a fever.
Yes, a fever.
So, that particular consideration would have to be considered invalid - of course, it's unclear if that's a good or bad thing for Djokovic!
Nevertheless, the pot was stirred.
It's never fun to get your ass handed to you on a tennis court, and you would think that a player of Federer's caliber would handle it well, given that it was happening so rarely, but his semi-final loss to Djokovic in Miami in 2009 included a shocking breakdown in his calm veneer when for the first time in years (it seemed) he violently destroyed a racquet in frustration. The match was of quite poor quality, with Florida's early spring winds making the ball play tricks on both players - but clearly Djokovic handled the conditions better, and found a way to win, rather than fall a apart, as did Federer.
You couldn't help but wonder if any other player on tour would have elicited such a response from Federer? Could losing to Djokovic, after losing his #1 ranking and his beloved Wimbledon crown, and an Australian Open final to Nadal, and getting obliterated by Mardy Fish in Indian Wells a couple weaks earlier, have been the straw that broke the camel's back? To anyone observing Federer's uncharacteristic meltdown, it seemed to be. After all, if there was a player on tour against whom he should have lost his temper, because he just couldn't take it anymore, it should have been Nadal (against whom he did lose his temper back in 2005 at the same tournament, but never/rarely since). Come to think of it, Federer had some pretty harsh things to say about Nadal & Co. at that time as well, so maybe his reaction to losing to Djokovic, and the context thereof, was not dissimilar to his reaction to losing to Nadal, and the context thereof.
So this one is the wild-card, but apparently, as a gesture of good will, Federer's mother invited the Djokovic clan to their home in Basel (during the indoor tournament in 2009) for a two-family dinner, which supposedly did much to improve the relationship - but why would that be necessary if there was nothing in it to improve?
I think that is probably the clearest evidence yet of a rift to be healed.
Indian Wells, 2011
After their Indian Wells final in 2011 - having lost his first big final of the year to Djokovic, Nadal said in his acceptance speech:
"I lost today but I lost against one of the greatest."
Perhaps in response, or in defiance of the going sentiment that Federer is the GOAT, Djokovic said to Nadal in his acceptance speech:
"It's always a pleasure playing against you, you are a big champion - to me you are the greatest player ever..."
Well, well, well...I don't know any player on tour who has said this - they all defer the GOAT debate to Federer - it's only in some quarters of the media, and in the lunatic fringe of the blogosphere that he isn't. But here, the hottest player on tour, with a growing major record of his own, having played almost 30 times against each of the game's most respected players, identified Nadal - and more importantly not Federer - as his choice for the greatest of all time.
A lone voice among so many of their contemporaries - but a significant one. When asked to explain himself in the post-match press conference, far from backing away from his comment, he doubled down on it:
"Q: What was behind you saying to him in the trophy ceremony that you thought he was the best player ever?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, I think I have said what I needed to say. There is nothing behind. It's just what I think.
Q: So you think he's better all-time than Roger?
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: I think he's the best ever because, even though he's 24, 25 years old, he has done so much already, you know. Many years in front of him to, you know, I think even to overtake Roger in the Grand Slam trophies."
How about that? So, even after joining the families for dinner, and having nothing but nice things to say about each other since, it seems one or the other cannot resist the temptation to do or say something that would obviously get under the other's skin.
Neither has made any comment on the matter since then.
The semi-final between Federer and Djokovic at the French Open in 2011 denied what many suspected would have finally been the day Nadal would learn the word "comeuppance" in French, after losing to his nemesis 4 times in 2011, and twice on his best surface, in Madrid and Rome. All of their matches had been very close, most of them going the distance, and the immoveable object of Nadal at Roland Garros, would have met an apparently irresistible force in Djokovic had he made the final.
But somebody forgot to tell Federer to read his own obituary - and nobody was more irritated than Djokovic.
Throughout the match, Djokovic appeared to be irritable - when a spectator had a seizure at the end of the first game, his first service game, which was broken, by the way, Djokovic appeared to be on the verge of having a go at the crowd for intentionally (or otherwise) disrupting him. Reason got the better of him when he realized it was a medical emergency - I guess nobody told him the "Au secours" he heard in french means, "Help!"
But as the match wore on - not only did Djokovic have problems with his footing, something that he seemed to have resolved with significantly improved footwork, there seemed to also have a problem with the crowd - again! Over and over again, they seemed to take Federer as an adopted Frenchman. While Nadal has grown accustomed to this treatment by the French, at the hands of Federer, he had (and still has) the game to let all of that wash over him like a warm breeze. But Djokovic had no answer to Federer's brilliance that day. And, as is most often the case, with Federer serving as well as he did, Djokovic was left to respond to point after point with sarcastic, head-shaking incredulity at how his winning streak, and his almost certain coronation as the champion against a Nadal, a player he owned at the time, was fading away like the light on Phillipe Chatrier that twindled so poetically at the end of the match.
If you watch the clips, you can see, at one point, Ion Tiriac, a fellow eastern European, angrily and fervently gesticulating in support of Djokovic as he stood alone, with the exception of his entourage, struggling to keep the match alive, while the French crowd ruthlessly bayed for his blood. Tiriac, no stranger to being unappreciated by the game, appeared to be the only one not related, in love with, or working for Djokovic that wasn't. It is at these times when tennis can be its most cruel. After all, as a global sport, why should one player, who has won so much, be so heavily supported by the crowd? So the reception Federer received must have been an arrow in the heart to a player who so obviously wants to be loved.
That's why that little index finger of Federer's, shaken after hitting an ace on match point, at once dismissively and defiantly, in the direction of Tiriac, Djokovic and his entourage, was so unexpected. After all, were they the only ones Federer saw in the crowd? Could he have better blocked out the undying support from the French spectators (who so desperately willed him to win), than Djokovic (whom they so desperately willed him to lose)? Could that laser focus have been due, in part, to a commensurate disdain with which he continues to view Djokovic and his coterie?
It took a while for Federer to come to grips with the fact that Nadal was not just an irritant, who had no business beating him, but a great player in his own right, and the glowing terms with which he has spoken of him since 2008 is a testament to that. Nadal, for his part, has had little to say that could be construed as negative towards either of his main rivals.
And Djokovic, who has avoided stirring the embers of what is presumed to be a long dead fire of discord, also seems to be reading from the same script. Perhaps Federer, who would certainly resent the bombast, if not from Djokovic, from his parents, and also view Djokovic as an irritant who can't hold a stick to the breadth and depth of his game, would have to conclude now that there is no shame in losing to him. Perhaps this would do much to temper what, for all the above evidence, would have appeared to be a cold war between the two - always circulating, rarely confronting, but always on the verge of a renewed conflagration.
But is that good for the game? Isn't it better to have the feeling that they really don't like each other? For my part, I would prefer the latter. Think:
Isn't it more compelling when you know they don't care for each other? I'm not saying they have to engage in a kind of pro-wrestling pantomime, but part of me feels there is that one thing missing from tennis, that isn't altogether a bad thing. It is often said that Rugby is a game for rogues played by gentlemen, and football is a game for gentlemen played by rogues.
What is tennis? These days, it's a game for gladiators played by hypersensitive types, who you know can't stand each other, but won't give you the satisfaction of admitting it.
Give me my satisfaction, please.