Off court distractions were the sub plot of Friday’s winner-takes-all clash between Novak Djokovic and Alexander Zverev.
The world number one has been spinning plenty of plates of late, but so far this week he’s just about managed the balancing act.
His 6-3 7-6 victory over the German wasn’t vintage Nole, but it was enough to set up a blockbusting last four showdown with Dominic Thiem and came on the back of more media stories detailing political uncertainty within the inner sanctum of the men’s game.
The Serb, a former president of the ATP players’ council, has taken centre stage in what feels like a tug-of-war battle between the existing body and the Professional Tennis Player's Association (PTPA) he helped found in the summer.
In particular, Djokovic appears at odds with his ‘big three’ counterparts, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who don't seem to want members to join the world number one’s breakaway group.
ATP won't let me rejoin players’ council - Novak Djokovic
Nadal and Federer were elected on to the official council last year after growing concerned by the turmoil on the men’s tour and some of the decisions being made under Djokovic’s watch.
The difference of opinion seems quite broad. There are obviously more bureaucratic matters at hand, but just this week for example, Nadal and Djokovic expressed opposing views when asked whether Grand Slams should be best of three or five. They just don't appear to be on the same page over a lot of issues.
As ever, the Serb has been exasperated by any perception that he is the villain within the saga. It’s a role he has uncomfortably had to live with in the face of the romanticised rivalry between Nadal and Federer on the court, and he is very eager to avoid occupying a similar spot off it.
Given the attention to detail required and long hours that come with handling such political issues, you have to wonder whether Djokovic needs the additional stress.
Back in September, Patrick Mouratoglou suggested he may have been distracted in the lead up to his infamous disqualification from this year’s US Open due to his work surrounding the launch of the PTPA. Whether it played any part is open to debate, but if so, is it worth it when weighed up against his remaining individual ambitions in tennis?
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The news that the 17-time Grand Slam champion was nominated to re-join the current player’s council came ahead of his round-robin match with Daniil Medvedev. He had been imperious in his opener against Diego Schwartzman and while Medvedev’s record suggests he’s a much tougher proposition on indoor hard than the Argentine, Djokovic was clearly not at his very best that night.
Was he affected by Bruno Soares’ reveal that his name was involved earlier that day? Only he will know, but he addressed it head on after his loss to Medvedev and said the story was inaccurate in detailing the process and that the council had actually blocked his return.
With this going on in the background, it was clearly not the ideal way to prepare for a make or break clash with Zverev. That could easily have gone to a deciding set too, had the German taken a number of chances in the second. The Serb has started his last two matches well but is struggling to maintain his best throughout and will need to move through a few gears if Thiem brings his A-game to the court on Saturday.
Djokovic still has designs on claiming a record-equalling sixth title at this tournament come Sunday and has already identified the dates he could potentially surpass Federer’s haul of 310 weeks as the historic number one in 2021.
Then there’s the small matter of the Grand Slam race where he will be confident of moving within two of Federer and Nadal at the Australian Open, should the issues with quarantine be resolved.
All of these objectives require the ultimate focus and, despite his Serbinator nickname, he would only be human if his intense concentration on his targets suffered a glitch with the increasing off court demands on his time. If you spin too many plates then sooner or later you can expect some to get broken.
Djokovic may believe his intentions are correct, but if he wants to continue to dismantle most records in his path and eventually sign off as the GOAT, the politics must surely take more of a back seat.
Don't get it wrong. He’ll still be there or thereabouts in terms of challenging for the major prizes even with the distractions. But he may be best concentrating solely on his tennis in-season and during the relentless spotlight of tournaments, if he is to truly hit the incredible heights he demands of himself.