Novak Djokovic is livid. So he throws a stink eye. At coach Boris Becker. At wife Jelena. At the anonymous others in his box. The empathetic gang blinks back at him with kindness and understanding. But Djokovic isn’t blinking. His eyelids are sucked back into the skull, like a frozen yawn.
“Thirty-forty,” announces Carlos Bernardes, the chair umpire. But the world number one holds on to his pose at the edge of the court — dilated pupils, hands on hips, racquet on the floor. “Thirty-forty,” says the ump again, and this time Djokovic snaps out of it, returning to the world where moments earlier, he had shanked a break point.
“C’mon,” he howls under his breath, as his feet spread out to a receiving position on the ad-court side. Beyond the net, Roberto Bautista Agut, down a set, 2-4 and 15-40 until just moments ago, prepares to serve and save another break point. Djokovic groans as he loads his two-fisted backhand with spin to take the edge off Bautista Agut’s first serve. And then he groans again as the ball returns back to his side, faster, flattened and devoid of revs.
Bautista Agut, a relatively unknown Spaniard despite being the 23rd best tennis player in the world today, owns a monster forehand. And that monster is currently crushing Djokovic’s play, demonising his counter-punching strategy. So Djokovic gives in and plays by the monster’s rules.
Now, flat strokes scream from both sides, inches above the net. And a great butterfly is sketched on court. Bautista Agut — forehand crosscourt.
Djokovic — forehand down-the-line. Bautista Agut — backhand crosscourt. Djokovic — backhand down-the-line. The down-the-line is weak and sits up nicely for Bautista Agut, dragging him ahead. Djokovic realises there’s acres of space to his right so shifts to cover an empty court. But just as he completes a step, Bautista Agut has wrong-footed him on the near side, avoiding the obvious and finding a crisp winner between the Serb’s left shoe and the tramline.
As Arthur Ashe rises for the ecstatic Spaniard, Djokovic too sticks up a thumb in appreciation. He is smiling and clapping, half amused by his opponent’s bravado. But a second later, the smile vanishes and Djokovic is shooting spears at his box again. Spitting and snarling. Gnashing and growling.
Bautista Agut, from the very brink of 2-5, soon holds to make it 3-4. Then he breaks Djokovic (4-4) and holds again (5-4). When he breaks Djokovic a second time to win the set, Djokovic smashes his racquet. Only, the racquet doesn’t break. So the Serb stands with both feet on its face and tugs at the handle. The neck snaps. The thirst for blood has been quenched.
“Sometimes you’re not proud of what you do,” Djokovic would say later. “But, again, the important thing is to be aware of what you did and to bounce back and gather the concentration.” He did all of that, and he did all of that well.
Bautista Agut continued to trouble him in sets three and four. But now, Djokovic was up for a brawl he didn’t start. So he rolled up his metaphorical sleeves and smacked the ball deeper into the Spaniard’s court. The depth ensured that Bautista Agut didn’t have the time or space to brute back his returns and the nine-time Grand Slam champion created oil paintings with supple wrists and subtle angles.
It was akin to attending a Nirvana concert in Seattle in the ’90s. Plenty of loathing. Plenty of art. Plenty of destruction.
“I used the experience of facing these particular situations before in my life, knowing what to do next,” he said. Sure. Apart from playing Bautista Agut, Djokovic began playing to the galleries too. After one incredible point, which saw him run wide around his backhand and slice his wrist to pull off a drop winner from the tightest of corners, Djokovic cupped his free palm against his left ear and urged the crowd to applaud. When they, a force of about 16,000 who were firmly on Bautista Agut’s side up until that point, obliged, both players knew that the moment had passed.
“Nothing’s more spectacular in tennis than a night session at Arthur Ashe,” Djokovic would acknowledge. “I wanted them on my side.”
A rare four-setter
When the match ended, three hours after it began, Djokovic thanked his opponent for the test. “Congratulations to Bautista for hanging in there, for fighting. I thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said. And you could see that he did enjoy it. In the first week of Grand Slams this year, not too many players have given him the satisfaction of a contest. Before tonight, just one, South Africa’s Kevin Anderson (fourth round, Wimbledon), managed to stop the Serb from winning in straight sets.
“It’s always good to have an early test like this in a Grand Slam,” he said. “You know, better earlier than later in the second week.” But when asked if his on-court anger was due to Bautista Agut, Djokovic broke into his first light-hearted moment of the night. “What?” he said, chortling,
“Why would I be angry with him? He played great tennis. Why would I be upset about that?”
Really, why would he? On the first Sunday, Bautista Agut forced Djokovic to play like he usually does on the second one.