It’s not often you can see that you know exactly how one of the world’s greatest athletes is feeling.
But as Novak Djokovic was hammer-throwing his raquet into the empty stands at the Ariake Tennis Centre, you recognized the look. He’d had right up to here with the pandemic Olympics.
The world’s best tennis player arrived in Japan full of plans. He’d win one gold. No, no, two golds - let’s get a little mixed doubles in there for variety.
He’d use this short week to springboard into the hardcourt season and, ultimately, the U.S. Open. After he’d won that, he would be the first men’s player in history to seal the so-called Golden Slam - all four majors, plus the Olympics. Then he would start flapping his arms and become the first human to fly himself to the Moon.
Short of Simone Biles, you’d have said a week ago that no athlete here was a more comprehensive lock to win their event.
When Biles took a pass on her first event, someone snookered Djokovic into commenting in general on the subject of pressure. At this point, he was cruising along.
“Pressure is a privilege, man,” Djokovic said, quoting Billie Jean King. “If you’re aiming to be at the top of the game you better start learning how to deal with pressure and how to cope with those moments - on the court, but also off the court.”
Though he was speaking generally rather than specifically about any person, people still took it amiss. That’s Djokovic’s greatest weakness - no one will cut him any slack.
On Friday, it all started falling apart.
In the usual withering heat - Djokovic had called it “brutal” - he coughed up his semi to Alex Zverev. Immediately thereafter, he did the same thing in a mixed-doubles semi. His two-for-the-price-of-one plan had fallen apart.
First up on Saturday was the singles bronze against Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta. One major thing separated the two competitors - Carreno Busta seemed to want the bronze, and Djokovic seemed to want to be tucked up at home in his hyperbaric chamber.
It was a tight match, but only because Djokovic’s muscle memory took over midway through. He can’t bring himself to lose, even when he’d like to.
In the third and final set the shenanigans began. There was the aforementioned raquet toss into the stand. It was Djokovic’s smoothest move of the match - a running launch, followed by a slow, uninterrupted jog back to the bag to fetch a replacement.
The replacement didn’t last long. After another botched effort, Djokovic re-enacted The Last Spike, with his raquet as the hammer and one of the stanchions holding up the net as the spike. When Carreno Busta complained about no penalty being imposed for destruction of property, the umpire shot a look that said, ‘You don’t think he’s having a bad enough day already?’
As it ended, Djokovic hurried to the net while Carreno Busta lay on the hardcourt for a long time enjoying himself.
Djokovic still had another bronze to lose - mixed doubles. Within minutes, that was over, too. Citing a shoulder injury, Djokovic cancelled the match.
Djokovic in five matches in just over 48 hours in tropical heat, lost two of them, ditched another and apparently ended that short, miserable stretch with an injury.
He came to Tokyo the most in-form professional athlete on the planet. He leaves it having not just blown his chances here, but perhaps impacted the real goal - winning his fourth consecutive major in New York starting in four weeks.
This Olympics had three top tier international stars on the marquee: Biles, Djokovic and torch-lighter Naomi Osaka. You may see a pattern here.
They all came to an Olympics a lot of other people with choices took a pass on. They all floundered.
That is the risk of every Olympics. No matter how simple you think it’s going to be, it’s not.
You cannot compare the scrutiny felt here to anything else, even when you do this performing-for-millions thing on the regular. Because there is no getting back at ‘er tomorrow. This is one chance. For a certain tiny class of the most elite athlete, there is only one acceptable result.
Taking this chance also comes with a measurable risk - that people will remember this loss in a way they wouldn’t remember it if you fell on your face at a U.S. championships or Indian Wells.
That might explain Djokovic’s well-out-of-character levels of frustration on Saturday. He knew he was in the midst of a defining match, but not in the way he’d hoped.
Every Olympics teaches a few unique lessons. This one is telling the very, very best in the world to be careful what they put on their vision board. What should happen is not always what happens. And when you come in a bold-face name, stumbling here will become a major story.
Then there are the other competitors, all of them elite, but nowhere close to Djokovic or Biles territory.
Carreno Busta is one of them. The 30-year-old has won a lot of money in his tennis career, but he’s never won anything that really matters.
Long after Djokovic had hurried off to cancel his last appointment, the Spaniard was still sitting on the court. He had his head in his hands was sobbing.
For him, this wasn’t a risk. It was a chance. He taken it marvelously, defeating the very best there and redefining himself forever. Because whatever else happens for him in tennis, he will always be an Olympic medalist.
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