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Champion Of Capitulation

llness and fatigue collided in the Australian Open quarterfinals: a resolute Andy Roddick was sick and tired of seeing his major aspirations stall before the semifinal stage; defending champ Novak Djokovic was just plain sick and tired.

In the end, Roddick’s relentless firepower and superior strength combined with searing heat and lingering fatigue from playing a day match after completing his fourth-round win over Marcos Baghdatis near 2:25 a.m. on Monday morning were too much for a drained Djokovic to overcome.

The reigning champion retired while trailing Roddick, 7-6(3) 4-6, 2-6, 1-2.

A depleted Djokovic conceded the physicality of the match combined with the hot conditions and short turnaround time between matches left him running on empty.

“The main reason was cramping and soreness in the whole body,” Djokovic said in explaining the cause of his capitulation. “I think the people could see that I was struggling with movement. I couldn’t serve the way I served in the first two sets. He saw that longer rallies are not comfortable for me at that point, so he was using it wisely. Really unfortunate way to end up my Australian Open 2009 here in this way. Really tried my best, but sometimes you can’t fight against your own body.”

On the surface, it sounds perfectly plausible that Djokovic would be so drained playing amid the blue-hot broil of Rod Laver Arena against a supremely fit Roddick, who spent much of his offseason sculpting his body and streamlining his game training in Austin, Texas with new coach Larry Stefanki. He arrived in Melbourne 15 pounds lighter in arguably his best shape and hardly looked fazed after dropping the first set.

Retirement may sound reasonable given the circumstances, but step back and consider the perspective recent history provides. The reality is Djokovic has a history of resorting to injury timeouts as tennis pit stop — to rest, recover and refuel — and his repetitive and tired tendency to tap out of majors has become inexcusable. His quarterfinal exit marked the fourth time in 17 Grand Slam appearances Djokovic has pulled the rip cord in retiring from a major, which is more than the rest of the top four combined. Djokovic has retired from majors four times, World No. 1 Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Roddick have never retired from a Grand Slam match.

So what’s the problem, you might ask? Every player’s pain threshold and tolerance for heat varies. And as Tennis Week message board contributors Xiowa and West Coast point out: playing in extreme heat it is potentially dangerous for a player.  Roddick realized Djokovic was struggling and was intent on finishing the job.

“Honestly, you know, at that point, obviously you know he’s hurting. When you know he’s hurting, all you want to do is just deliver that knockout blow,” Roddick said.  “You don’t want to keep playing the game of wondering if he’s going to do it or not or if he’s close. Only he really knows. At that point, you don’t want to see anybody go out, but I was happy that I was able to get the last break in there, the last blow. If anything, it just gives your piece of mind a little bit of a rest.”

The mind-body connection can create vulnerability in some players, who can feel trapped by their circumstance and condition.

Indeed sport psychologist Dr. John F. Murray, who was coaching Vince Spadea when Djokovic won the 2007 Adelaide title in the heat of the Australian summer, suggests the psychological pressure of defending his title may have short-circuited his competitive coping mechanism and contributed to Djokovic’s decision to call it quits.

“It is true that players with lots of pressure and expectation on them are more likely to experience muscle tension, anxiety and other psychological factors which have been proven to increase the sensation of pain,” Dr. Murray told Tennis Week. “Pain is still very much an individual factor and some have a greater pain threshold than others. The fact is that actual tissue damage is a very poor predictor of when a person will experience debilitating pain or not. Being shot in war, for example, means that you are coming off the battle field and surviving and soldiers in such cases often report much less pain that a person in a non-combat situation who bangs his thumb with a hammer, for instance. So I believe that while Novak is being honest in thinking that he can no longer go on in these matches, he is indeed a victim of his own stress, expectations or fear, and that his way of coping with the pain and injuries could probably improve with some mental coaching.”

If Djokovic lacks the strength and stamina of other top players, why question the competitive character of the World No. 3 who has been a capable contender on all surfaces and has reached at least the semifinals of all four majors in five years of Grand Slam competition?

The issue is Djokovic’s habit of bailing out of Grand Slam tournaments devalues both the tournament, the game and his commitment to the cause when he treats a major match as casually as a used Kleenex to be discarded under the guise that there’s more where that came from leaving the fans who paid for tickets without resolution the comes from a completed match. To be fair, Djokovic is not the only player who succumbed to the conditions or personal pain: Justine Henin famously retired from the 2006 final vs. Amelie Mauresmo, trailing 6-1, 2-0, denying the Frenchwoman her chance to celebrate her first major championship by completing the match. Gael Monfils retired from his fourth-round match against fellow Frenchman Gilles Simon citing a wrist injury and Victoria Azarenka, who took the first set from Serena Williams, appeared on the bring of passing out due to a virus and the heat when she retired from the fourth round.

Yet none of those players have the history of injury timeouts and retirements of Djokovic, whose tendency to consult trainers so often has prompted some opponents to suggest he carry a medical bag inside his racquet bag.

At times of stress or duress, Djokovic sometimes resorts to the injury timeout as a behavioral pattern. 

“We condition ourselves to certain expectations which essentially become who we are,” Trevor Moawad, Director of Performance for the Athletic & Personal Development program in Bradenton, Florida told Tennis Week. “Once we have a belief inside of who we ‘think’ we are, we typically act in a manner in alignment with that belief. ”

Is Djokovic’s physical fragility merely his body’s response to extreme heat or a symptom of something deeper?

“The mind is just as important as the body. Clearly it appears that Djokovic needs to train harder in the heat and learn to survive these epic battles more frequently and being in top notch physical shape never hurts,” Dr. Murray said. “At the same time, the way he interprets the sensations provided from his senses, the way he interprets pain signals, the confidence or lack thereof he experiences the next time he is faced with that burning in his feet, that aching in his thighs, all is intricately connected to his mental state. Just as the brain interprets pain signals and fatigue, the attitude a player takes and the mental training he or she engages in prior to battle helps to set the expectations and helps to prepare that athlete for survival in the toughest of circumstances. For example, a player who consciously minimizes pain in pre-match imagery, or prepares to suffer and yet find a way to dig in and survive, is better able to compete versus a player who draws more attention to his or her internal signals of distress.”

In the past, Djokovic’s distress has prompted him to take injury time outs or in some cases bail out of matches yet other players under similar duress do not resort to such tactics.

Consider the following:

  • Baghdatis basically spotted Djokovic the opening set in surrendering six of the first seven games in 25 minutes on Monday so while the match lasted into the early morning hours the pair played a little more than three hours.
  • Djokovic had lost only two sets in his four tournament wins — it is difficult to imagine a cumulative effect of excessive effort that wore him down.  
  • Heat isn’t a selective force that chooses sides like a gambler invested in the outcome of a match — both Roddick and Djokovic were playing under the same conditions while the fans inside the Arena — many of whom paid good money only to see Marion Bartoli lose 11 consecutive games vs. Vera Zvonareva followed by Djokovic’s failure to finish against Roddick — endured the heat through both matches.  
  • Other players have been taxed more than Djokovic in this tournament:  Jelena Dokic rolled her ankle severely against Alisa Kleybanova yet still continued to play and still completed five three-set matches in the tournament. Fernando Gonzalez defeated former finalist Lleyton Hewitt in the first round then saved a match point in rallying from a two-set deficit to defeat Richard Gasquet in a five-set fight, 3-6, 3-6, 7-6(10), 6-2, 12-10. Gonzalez lost in straight sets to Nadal in the following round, but finished the match.

The controversial conclusion to the quarterfinal also raises questions about tactics outside the lines. How much did the schedule and opponent factor into the retirement? Had Djokovic been playing Tommy Robredo instead of Roddick, who beat him last year in Dubai and was supremely motivated to avenge his US Open quarterfinal loss to Djokovic after the pair exchanged barbs, would he have continued playing?

Djokovic said afterward he requested to play a night match based on the fact he didn’t get to bed until about 5 a.m. after outlasting Baghdatis on Monday morning and would have preferred more recovery time.

“Look, I did finish very late, about 2:00, 2:30, 3:00 a.m. two nights ago. Went to sleep around 5:00, 5:30. Didn’t really have time to recover. There were really difficult circumstances,” Djokovic said. “Conditions were extreme today. It did affect more on me than him, as you could see. But, you know, that was the situation. I just have to cope with it. It was unfortunate for me. I did request to play night match, but didn’t came up good for me.”

Players and/or their agents can lobby the tournament director for a preferred schedule. In this case, Roddick, who said he was not consulted on scheduling the match for the day or night session, presumably preferred playing the day match to apply his superior strength and stamina as an advantage.  But player preference isn’t the only factor that comes into play when it comes to scheduling major matches.

Dokic’s inspired run to the Australian Open quarterfinals was the biggest story of the tournament and Tennis Australia, eager to capitalize on the adopted Aussie’s appeal and ratings power and present her match to the largest television audience, understandably scheduled the Dokic-Safina match for the night session. Roddick is the last American man in the draw and ESPN2, also intent on capturing the largest American television audience, benefitted by Roddick playing Djokovic during the day session which meant an approximate 11 p.m start time on the East Coast and a prime-time match up on the West Coast of the USA whereas had Tennis Australia scheduled Roddick-Djokovic for the night session it would have likely aired on American television sometime after 4 a.m. Eastern time when much of the audience is asleep.

At the age of 21, Djokovic is well on his way to attaining an ignominious Grand Slam in retiring from all four majors. He retired from the 2005 Roland Garros vs. Guillermo Coria and the 2006 Roland Garros after falling into a two-set deficit against Rafael Nadal. He pulled out of the 2007 Wimbledon semifinal vs. Nadal trailing 6-3, 1-6, 1-4. Additionally, Djokovic retired from last February’s Davis Cup match against Nikolay Davydenko while facing a 4-6, 3-6, 6-4 deficit. Djokovic further fueled Federer’s disdain for his repeated retirements when he quit his Monte Carlo semifinal match vs. Federer last April, complaining of a migraine while trailing, 6-3, 3-2. Extreme heat was not a factor in most of those matches.

Federer, who called Djokovic’s propensity to pull the plug in matches and resort to repeated injury timeouts as  ”a joke” after a straight-sets win in the 2006 Davis Cup match, took Djokovic to task after his last disappearing act. In an on-court interview after deconstructing Juan Martin del Potro, 6-3, 6-0, 6-0, Federer said he was disappointed, but not surprised Djokovic quit because “he’s done it before — against me.”

Djokovic counters he’s just doing what is best for his game and career.

“This is all part of the sport. I did have some retirements, but I always retired with a reason,” Djokovic said. “I don’t see why should anybody, you know, take it or mean it that way. Whenever I retired, I retired because I felt I cannot go on.”

Tennis is a solo sport, but there’s a sense of entitlement to Djokovic’s behavior that can be unsettling to both opponents and fans — Djokovic appears willing to do whatever it takes even if that means using injury time outs as rest periods or a means to massage  — to improve his condition.

A commitment to conditioning — both physical and mental — could help Djokovic break the cycle of quitting on court.

“Mental conditioning and/or sport psychology can help athletes develop thought processes that are more conducive to long term success,” Moawad told Tennis Week. ”I was working with Olympic sprinter, Michael Johnson, last week with NFL prospects.  We’ve been working for years with Michael to train a top football players, not only in the area of speed, but also in the area of mental conditioning.  Last week Michael was going through his pre-race preparation as we watched his 200 meter gold-medal performance in 1996 on the flat-screen.  When you listen to the great ones take you through their process, and how they manage the setbacks and/or distractions, you can truly understand that many of these behavior traits are learned and very transferrable to any athlete.  You also see why some last and others fade.  In essence, they are consciously competent.  We all know the negatives are going to come, be it heat, injuries, personal issues, but when they do come, what’s your plan? How will you respond? As MJ said, that ability to respond is where he distanced himself from other competitors.

“Habits can be changed in four to six weeks.  All it takes is the willingness to do so and the resources to get it done.  As an athlete, things like mental conditioning, nutrition, performance training — these aren’t really luxuries anymore, they’re necessities. That’s what’s made Athletic & Personal Development program such a great resource for athletes over the years.”

There’s a lot to like about Djokovic’s game and his ability and he’s taken a role in the direction of the sport through both his work on the ATP Player Council and his role as a partial owner in the new Belgrade stop on the ATP Tour. While he’s often quite candid in his post-match press conferences and is an intelligent man fluent in several languages, the man who was once a top tennis entertainer has increasingly alienated fans with his antics.

New York fans jeered and booed Djokovic after he beat Roddick at the Open last September then took the American to task for joking about his propensity for injury saying: “That’s not nice, anyhow, to say in front of this crowd that I have 16 injuries and I am faking it… Andy was saying that I have 16 injuries in the last match, so obviously I don’t, right? Like it or not, it’s like that. They (the crowd) are already against me because they think I am faking everything, so sorry.”

A man so adept at playing to the crowd during the 2007 US Open showed a sheer lack of regard and respect for them in Melbourne last night. From requesting the chair umpire admonish a fan who was cheering for Roddick (a security guard warned the fan during the first set) to the fact the defending champ declined to finish the match, Djokovic was so preoccupied with elements out of his control he lost failed to fully master elements in his control: his conditioning and his new racquet.

Djokovic has dazzled fans with his skills and delighted them with his impersonations, most notably during his run to the 2007 US Open final. But the master mimic who’s so adept in acting as other top 10 players he once confessed to actually accumulating more accolades and congratulatory calls for his impressions than his inspired tennis, has to realize tennis is first and foremost a sport and showtime must be supplementary to the competition rather than the reason for being.

Fans attend tournaments to see tennis, not treatment.  If Djokovic continues to tap out when the going gets tough, ultimately the sport itself suffers and one of the game’s greatest talents comes off as a guy who likes to win pretty but just doesn’t give a damn about gutting his way through matches.

It’s time for Djokovic to get his act together and act like he cares by finishing what he starts in every major.

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