On the face of it there wasn’t anything spectacular about Novak Djokovic’s second-round win over Taylor Fritz at the Italian Open on Tuesday. The world No 1 won a rain-delayed match 6-2 7-5 and was pushed much less harder by Fritz than he was at the Australian Open earlier this year.
But the match was not without incident. Having been raining almost throughout, Djokovic eventually expressed his unhappiness that play had not been suspended, having just been broken at 5-4 up in the second set.
"How much more do you want to play?" he yelled at umpire Nacho Forcadell.
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When the umpire said he would check the court, Djokovic responded with: "I asked you three times, you are not checking anything." Djokovic then walked to his chair and, after another comment from the umpire, quipped: "It’s getting harder? Yeah right."
The match was suspended for three hours at that point as rain continued to fall. It didn't prove problematic for Djokovic as he wrapped up the win soon after players returned to court – before accepting that he had "lost his cool".
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"We had everything today. With the interruption, it is never easy playing in these types of conditions. We played almost two full sets non-stop under the rains, at one point it was quite dangerous for movement,” he told Amazon Prime.
"I kind of lost my cool towards the end of that second set when I served for the match, but at the end of the day when you overcome these kinds of circumstances and challenges, I think it brings even more confidence in you. I know it is necessary for me to step out on the tennis court tomorrow to work on things, I know I can play better and will make sure I do."
Is there anything more to read into the outburst?
It’s not the first time that Djokovic has seemed frustrated during a relatively unsuccessful clay season so far. After losing to Dan Evans at the Monte-Carlo Masters, Djokovic fumed at his "awful performance", saying it was one of his "worst matches" in years. He was also left with plenty of regrets after losing in the semi-finals of the Serbia Open to Aslan Karatsev, describing himself as "not happy" with his display.
But these tournaments are not Djokovic’s primary motivation anymore. When once he would have dominated the start of the season and gone on long winning runs, his priority now is adding to his 18 Grand Slam titles– "it’s more about trying to peak at Grand Slams and make those count for my career". Rome is the first Masters event of the season he has played, having missed Miami and Madrid.
"It’s a different schedule from what I had for so many years," he acknowledged.
Djokovic took time off after Miami to spend with his family and did the same again after losing in the Serbia Open. He hiked the Rtanj Mountain in his home country with wife Jelena and he says he is now planning to enjoy "more time with my family and just do other things that interest me".
"Because I never had time for that. So now, all of a sudden, I have a little bit more time and a little bit more windows of opportunities to do these things. It makes me very happy."
Clearly Djokovic still wants to win every time he plays, but perhaps winning a Masters isn’t what it once was for him. As for his outburst at the umpire, Djokovic has always been more prone to "losing his cool" than some of his rivals. Might it even happen more now Djokovic’s focus and motivation has shifted slightly? He was asked before the tournament about players expressing themselves on court and whether the younger generation are more freely showing their emotion.
"I can only speak on my own behalf, when I play I experience a lot of different varieties of emotions inside of me. They vary and they change very quickly. It's a very dynamic game. You're by yourself on the court, so you experience a lot of weight on your shoulders.
"You can burst and explode, and that has happened to me and I'm not proud of that, of course, and I never supported the racquet breaking or anything like that in terms of negative outbursts, but it does happen. When it happens, you know, I have to kind of accept it and move on and forgive myself for doing that. I have been hard on myself for many years until I just accepted that that's who I am, as well. I'm working on it, and there are times when I can control myself more and sometimes control myself less."
Whether Djokovic controls his emotions or not, it will be fascinating to see whether he can continue to challenge for Grand Slams while playing less lead-up events. Is that a recipe for success? Or will Djokovic need to play more to win more?
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