Champions Don’t Just Disappear

Novak Djokovic

“He can’t come back,” I’m told philosophically by a British fellow journalist, unprovoked, while I peacefully drank my coffee a day before the start of Wimbledon. “Đoković,” he continued theatrically. “There are simply too many problems. He won’t reach the semi-finals.”

And while I, overwhelmed, selected between numerous options as responses to this incredibly arrogantly and summarily delivered stance, I realised that it would be better just to nod my head… And to seek him after the tournament.

The tournament passed; Đoković returned to form, and I didn’t find that colleague of mine. But if I had found him, here’s what I’d have said…

“Hi, colleague. How’s it going? I just wanted, before I depart from Wimbledon, to explain to you why you were mistaken, why Novak returned… Because a Wimbledon title can be considered a return to form, can it not?

In short, he returned because he’d never even left. You are a sports journalist, so you know yourself that ups and downs, no matter how drastic, are something that top athletes must go through in their career.

Now, the fact that it appeared to you that Novak had become too sluggish is another matter. You were looking at the whole thing superficially, not delving deeper into the essence, the fringes of memory processing the information that came to you. But that’s okay, you’re just one of those among the majority who reasoned in such way.

As we analysed Novak’s body language, every movement and every word, he didn’t change his modus operandi. He always plays and enjoys himself. And not every eye can see that.

There had been no results, you say? You’re absolutely correct. When you’re injured, there can be no success. Novak was hindered for a long time with a problem with his elbow, ignoring the signals sent by the body and avoiding the final confrontation, i.e. an operation. Yes, that was a mistake.

When he finally visited the surgeon, and that visit only lasted a couple of hours, it was clear that he had lost at least half a year of his career by prolonging that decision. His return to the court was marked by defeats from many players weaker than him, and that was most deceiving for you sceptics.

Did he look physically poor? Perhaps. He played some tournaments that he shouldn’t have, with some wisdom lacking there, and there was too much desire for new trophies. The body was not in the condition necessary to achieve top results. A lack of strength brings with it a lack of concentration, that’s a perpetual cycle from which two exits exist – total pause or a solution on the go, torment on the court. Novak chose the latter, actually the harder way, and so he again made you think in the wrong direction.

I disagree that there was no desire. Perhaps that fire within him was only hidden. Novak’s ambivalence can be deceiving. He is an artist in his work, and every artist sometimes gives us something that will compel us to wonder whether he enjoys what he’s doing? And in that, there was a new trap. That’s because, as we analysed his body language, every movement and every word, he didn’t change his modus operandi. He always plays and enjoys himself. And not every eye can see that.

The people with whom he became what he is also returned; old, dear faces sitting courtside, at training or matches. The return of championship-winning times and customs means the restoring of victorious habits. I won’t offer the metaphor of a bicycle that one can never forget how to ride once mastered, as it is inappropriate in relation to the magnitude of this topic, but it has some basic elements of truth. Champions don’t just disappear.

And, to conclude, here’s another reason why you’re watching him again lift the biggest trophy that exists in this sport. That’s you, a dear friend of mine by pen, microphone, whatever…, you and the rest of the army of unbelievers. Now if I told you that you’d disturbed the bear, you wouldn’t understand me because we Serbs have slightly disjointed slang. But then you know what the word “inat” (spite) means. Smart enough.
I wouldn’t delay you anymore – you learned your lesson even without me.”