Sunday, June 16

Tennis Briefing: Djokovic, a water bottle, and so many injuries in Rome

Welcome to the Monday Tennis Briefing, where The Athletic will explain the story behind the stories from the last week on court. This week, the coveted Masters 1000 in Rome ran its first week and the stories on court were matched by the drama off it. Novak Djokovic exited, struck by a water bottle, Rafael Nadal took the next step in his comeback, and the on-court spectacle was overtaken by some strange umpiring.

And is everybody injured now?

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Are all these injuries signal or noise?

Friday lunchtime in Rome and the Foro Italico briefly felt like an infirmary, as one medical bulletin followed another.

First, defending champion Elena Rybakina withdrew because of illness, before the first matches of the day on the Campo Centrale and Pietrangeli courts ended in retirements: Lorenzo Musetti (virus) on the former, Anna Blinkova (ankle) on the latter.

Later in the day, world No 7 Casper Ruud battled a back problem in his defeat to Miomir Kecmanovic, who had a similar injury and said afterwards that he took three kinds of pills to numb the pain.

The Italian Open had already seen two of the men’s favourites, Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz, pull out with fitness issues before it had begun. Defending champion Daniil Medvedev arrived carrying an issue in his upper leg. Elsewhere on Friday, Dominic Thiem announced he would retire later in the year because of his long-standing wrist problem.

So, does tennis have an issue with injuries?

It was a talking point throughout the first week in Rome and Danielle Collins, who benefited from Blinkova’s retirement, told The Athletic after the match that this kind of situation is an occupational hazard given tennis’s relentless schedule.

Collins came to Blinkova’s aid before she had to retire (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

“It’s to be expected when we have this many tournaments back to back to back,” she said. “It’s a physical sport and when people are going far and playing lots of matches, injuries and illnesses will pop up.

“I’m not surprised. It’s a long season — everyone deals with injuries or illness during the season.”

A couple of days earlier, Medvedev played down the withdrawals: “Injuries, in general, are coincidence unless it’s the same injury for everyone.”

Grigor Dimitrov, the world No 10 and a relative veteran at 32, offered a different perspective: “We’ve seen a lot more retirements in the last two and a half years because the sport is a lot more demanding.”


How to fix tennis

Can Kerber and Osaka crack the comeback (on clay?)

Naomi Osaka and Angelique Kerber are really good tennis players, and giving birth wasn’t going to change that.

That doesn’t mean coming back is easy. Tennis doesn’t protect player rankings during maternity leave, so women can get thrown to the wolves in the early rounds of tournaments and struggle to find wins when they need them most. Osaka and Kerber have been dealing with that these past months, showing flashes of their past Grand Slam-winning selves, but also periods of inconsistency that can spell doom in two-of-three-set tennis.

Osaka has embraced clay this week (Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

But in Rome, Kerber is back in another Masters 1000 round of 16, where she will have her work cut out against Iga Swiatek, the world No 1. Reaching the second week already counts as a victory for Kerber, who is only in month five of her comeback. With her best career results on grass and hard courts, she’s not a player any seed wants to face this summer.

Osaka’s coach, Wim Fissette set her the goal of returning to form for this year’s hard swing in North America, but Osaka is famously impatient and newly redoubtable on the red stuff. Rome has arguably been her best week, with wins over Marta Kostyuk, one of the best players this year, and Daria Kasatkina, maybe the world’s smartest player. Next up was Australian Open finalist Zheng Qinwen, who is 21 years old and relished the match-up, taking out an errant Osaka in straight sets.

That defeat doesn’t discredit Osaka’s commitment to improving on a surface she normally doesn’t relish at all. Osaka lost early in Madrid and went to Mallorca to train before Rome. “I watched some videos,” she said. “I watched Rafa. I watched Alcaraz. I watched Rublev, which is very inspiring. He’s smacking the ball and I thought, ‘I don’t want to have regrets when I leave the court’. In Madrid, I did have regrets of not swinging fully.”

No regrets? Sounds good.

Out in the tramlines: Should umpires be part of the show?

The rise of electronic line calling (ELC) means that umpires are increasingly peripheral figures in tennis.

Clay is slightly different, with tournaments, including the Italian Open, still relying on them popping off their chairs to inspect ball marks.

During a tight final set between British world No 67 Dan Evans and home favourite Fabio Fognini on Thursday night, Fognini scooped a forehand drive volley short and wide — too wide. The line judge responsible for the singles sideline initially put out an arm to stipulate it was out; the Hawk-Eye evidence indicated it was out; umpire Mohamed Lahyani insisted it was not.

“You couldn’t show me the mark, the ball didn’t hit the f*****g line,” as Evans put it.

Lahyani’s appetite for spectacle has irked players (Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

Lahyani insisted during the argument that the line judge had called the ball in, which appeared not to be the case. The incident came a year after Evans’ compatriot Andy Murray got in a similar argument with Lahyani — against the same opponent and at the same tournament.

The back-and-forth continued, and Evans was given a code violation warning for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Some would argue this wasn’t entirely coincidental. Lahyani is happy to get involved in matches — sometimes too much, like six years ago when he gave Nick Kyrgios a mid-match pep talk, subsequently earning a suspension from the ATP. In Rome, there was the surreal sight of Lahyani getting mobbed by spectators on the grounds of the Foro Italico. Officials are generally not revered in this way, and at last year’s tournament, Djokovic took the umpire to task for it, asking him “what is the drama” and “are you acting here” during a row over calling the score.

Maybe this will become a thing of the past once ELC completely takes over — the ATP says it plans to have the technology at all clay-court events next year — and umpires get pushed even further to the margins. A step forward, for some; for others, more evidence of sanitising tennis.


Rublev’s default in Dubai is exactly why tennis needs electronic line calling

Why did so many people think someone threw a bottle at Djokovic?

The widespread assumption on Friday night that Djokovic had been deliberately rather than accidentally struck by a water bottle broadly came about for a couple of reasons.

The first was that the original footage made it look that way.

The second, and more revealing, reason is that someone hating Djokovic enough to lob a bottle at him didn’t seem especially far-fetched. And maybe those preconceptions informed why so many assumed it was deliberate from the jump — not just his most dedicated fans, but tennis social media aggregators, figureheads, and Boris Becker.

Djokovic’s divisiveness is well-documented, with an army of supporters and his litany of staggering achievements not belying a huge number of detractors. Without re-litigating all that here, the hostility originally stemmed from the rivalry he enjoyed with the largely beloved Nadal and Roger Federer.

It has intensified over the last few years.

Djokovic often finds a sense of humour in conducting partisan crowds (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

He has arguably surpassed both in terms of achievement with comparatively little fanfare; his decision not to get the Covid-19 vaccine, which he always stressed was a personal choice, has invited opprobrium and unwittingly made him a poster boy for groups who believe that choice is a victory against the establishment.

There have been other controversies — at the Australian Open last year, his father was pictured with Vladimir Putin supporters; in the first week of last year’s French Open, he wrote “Kosovo is the (heart symbol) of Serbia” on a television camera in response to violent clashes in Kosovo, putting himself once more in the middle of a battle that has plagued the Balkans for nearly 1,000 years and drawing accusations of aligning himself with fascism and philosophies that led to ethnic cleansing.

Djokovic said both were misinterpreted.

Thankfully Djokovic wasn’t attacked on Friday and, by the following day, he was making light of the incident, arriving at the Foro Italico wearing a bike helmet before his defeat to Alejandro Tabilo.


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No-shot of the week

Club players of the world: does this look familiar?

Shot of the week

Club players of the world: does this look familiar?

Recommended reading:

📅 Coming up

🎾 ATP: 

📍Rome, Italian Open (1000) second week, ft. Stefanos Tstitsipas, Alejandro Tabilo, Thiago Monteiro, Grigor Dimitrov
📺 UK: Sky Sports; U.S.: Tennis Channel 💻 Tennis TV

🎾 WTA:

📍Rome, Italian Open (1000) second week, ft. Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka, Elena Rybakina, Coco Gauff.
📺 UK: Sky Sports; U.S.: Tennis Channel

Tell us what you noticed this week in the comments as the tours continue.

(Top photos: Mike Hewitt; Alex Pantling; Dan Isitene/Getty Images)