As Novak Djokovic glides into a small, lavishly appointed room in the Lieutenant-Governor’s chambers at Queen’s Park, there is an audible gasp from the VIPs on hand. Several burst into applause.
Every recognizable professional athlete tends to bring out the teenager in even very powerful people, but tennis players exist on a more elevated plane.
It’s the collision of the glamour of the sport and the intimacy with which it’s televised – those hours and hours of lingering on-court close-ups. These men and women are, in a very real sense, our icons.
Like most of the best, Djokovic seems both used to and ill at ease with this reaction. He keeps his head down, smiling shyly. His hands are clasped protectively at belt-buckle level. Your first up-close impression is how lean he is. “Whippet thin” leaps to mind. This guy is a walking, breathing indictment of gluten.
He’s here to observe the draw for the men’s end of the Rogers Cup, which starts on Monday, and also to effortlessly look better than the rest of us.
In a series of off-the-cuff remarks to kick things off, he says all the right things about the setting (“It’s really amazing!”), the host country (“Personally, I enjoy being in Canada.”) and the reason he’s here (“I hope we’re going to have a nice draw for me.”)
In retrospect, this is the high point of the afternoon. Everyone is hopeful.
Djokovic is hopeful that he’ll get to breeze through this U.S. Open hard-court primer. The crowd is hopeful that he will do something zany and charming. I’m hopeful that the buffet is just late in arriving. We will all be disappointed.
The draw is a tedious process with an even more tedious requirement that its minutiae be explained beforehand. At first, Djokovic is twisting around in his seat, trying to get a look at the projected board behind him. This seems new to him and sort of fun. That will also end.
He and the other top eight seeds are given first-round byes. The moderator calls the first VIP up to the table to begin the process of sorting out the remaining players, based on ranking.
First out of the pot – and the first man into Djokovic’s end of the bracket – is Scotsman Andy Murray. Murray’s had a dip in form recently, but he’s taken four of his past 10 matches against the Serb.
Our picker knows he’s screwed this up. He freezes. Djokovic gives him a wolfish leer.
“Thank you very much,” he says.
The room howls. Our poor picker is beginning to collapse in on himself.
“It doesn’t really matter,” Djokovic reassures unreassuringly.
It matters. At least a little.
The second VIP selector cunningly runs in behind the head table so that she can pick while standing directly behind Djokovic. She keeps asking if he minds and he keeps saying “No” and she keeps touching him on the shoulder and I suspect he minds just a little. But he’s the one who made the world fall in love with him. So this is his fault.
Now there’s a flurry of people picking plastic tabs out of a silver goblet. All of them are putting the absolute screws to Djokovic.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga ends up in his quarter of the draw.
“Is that okay?” the picker wonders nervously.
“That’s fine,” Djokovic says. It isn’t.
Next guy up pulls another dangerous Frenchman, Gaël Monfils. This will likely be the Serb’s first opponent.
Djokovic drops his head onto the table.
“Oh God,” he says, “It’s getting better and better.”
While Djokovic is finding the strength to cope, the draw continues around him.
The two touted Canadians apparently decided that, since there is only so much luck in the world, they shouldn’t bother splitting it.
Milos Raonic has a clear path to the quarters, where he would likely face Tomas Berdych. Vasek Pospisil’s first opponent is world No. 14 Richard Gasquet – a player he’s met only once, and beaten.
By this point, the drawing of lots has taken on such a fevered “Everybody in the pool!” feel, even the media are being offered a chance.
I draw Julien Benneteau against Lleyton Hewitt. So either Hewitt owes me a beer, or I owe Benneteau a ride to the airport.
Djokovic has used this short period of carnivalesque free-for-all to recover his temporarily absent joie de vivre. During the Q and A, he goes on fetchingly about his recent marriage and how that’s changed his life.
“You’re married, right?” he says to his questioner, the hopefulness creeping back in.
“Sorry,” Djokovic says, then mutters, “Is anyone here married?” For a variety of reasons, no one puts up their hand.
Nonetheless, he’s decided to embrace this very small disaster. He’s probably going to win this thing anyway, but it’s shaping up as a slog rather than a tuneup.
“I’m looking forward to the first match even though the draw is terrible for me,” Djokovic says. “That’s not my fault.”
The crowd roars again. This is more like it – fewer bland platitudes, more cynical lashing out. This is the sensory experience they’d been hoping for.
It ends, as it must, with a photo opportunity. But everyone has left – Lieutenant-Governor David Onley has sneaked out to catch a plane. The ATP honchos are off making things official. Only tournament director Karl Hale is still at the podium. The pair rises awkwardly, trying to negotiate their embrace.
“Make sure you get this photo,” Djokovic growls as the lights begin to strobe. “It’s the last time I’m ever doing a draw.”