Tomic and Djokovic on an “exhibition” scale

By Jesse Pentecost

So far as I can ascertain, Bernard Tomic has defeated Novak Djokovic twice, and lost three times. It might have been more, but notwithstanding their status as high profile athletes, and despite our era’s ungovernable urge to document everything, it has proved surprisingly difficult to be sure. Perusing the official records doesn’t help. The tour website lists their head-to-head as 3-0 in the Serbian’s favour. The reason for this is that Tomic, quite unforgivably, chose to beat Djokovic unofficially, which is to say at mere exhibition events not worthy of the ATP’s imprimatur.

The first of these victories came at the AAMI Classic at Kooyong in 2010, and was so unofficial that it doesn’t even figure in the record for that event: an interlude within an exhibition, no more than a few practice sets with paying spectators. You can guess how seriously Djokovic took the whole thing. It couldn’t have been less official had the players removed their pants, although it would undoubtedly have been more widely discussed. As it was, even the local Australian media found it difficult to get sufficiently excited. It made the six o’clock news, but it wasn’t quite the lead story.

Tomic’s second win over Djokovic occurred in Perth last week, at the Hopman Cup, and made front pages across the country. This is a tougher result to place, because the Hopman Cup as an event resists easy categorisation. Strictly, it’s an exhibition. But is it just an exhibition? Personally, I am not enamoured of ‘exhibition’ as a blanket term, since it covers then smothers too many disparate types of match. If Sharapova and Wozniacki stage a one-night unremunerated love-in at Madison Square Garden for the benefit of charity, then that is categorically unlike the top men parachuting in to the Emirates to play a three-day tune-up for a million bucks each. The events occurring the week before majors – such as Kooyong or The Boodles – are a different matter again.

Charity exhibitions have pre-decided outcomes, and are heavily laced with farce and crowd interaction. Warm-up events, on the other hand, can be contested as vigorously as an official tour match. Certainly most players gave their all in Perth last week, at least in the singles. (One questions whether Djokovic did in going down to Tomic. But if he didn’t, I can’t imagine he would have given more at, say, the World Team Cup in Dusseldorf, which is played the week before Roland Garros, and the only ‘exhibition’ the ATP endorses.) Perth saw a number of withdrawals, but most appeared legitimate.

Normally the reward for an opponent’s withdrawal is unimpeded passage to the next round. At worst you’re expected to join your critically wounded foe on court and launch tennis balls into the crowd, in the misplaced belief that this helps them forget the cost of their tickets. However, in Perth when Isner pulled out, Fernando Verdasco was obliged to see-off a hastily-located replacement, who turned out to be promising junior Thanasi Kokkinakis. Hopman Cup here betrayed its exhibitionist tendencies: it was, after all, about the crowd. Verdasco was happy to do it, because unlike a real tournament he was in Perth for match practice. He hopefully wasn’t averse to winning the event – although he did is personal best not to – but that’s not why he was there.

It is a curiosity of Hopman Cup is that it doesn’t really build towards anything. I’ve watched it for fifteen years, but I’ve never once known who the finalists were without being told. Tournament draws have a discernible momentum, a teleological promise of heightening quality as the rounds progress, a promise which then may be realised or frustrated. The stakes are raised as the draw pares down. With the exhibition’s typical round-robin format this clarity is lost, such that any match can feel as important or trivial as any other. Djokovic’s victory over Verdasco in the final didn’t feel more elevated than his victory over Seppi earlier in the week. But I’m not convinced it was less special than if they’d played in Montpellier, where the result would be official. I’m unconvinced that singles results in Hopman Cup shouldn’t count, even if it’s a just an exhibition. Perhaps it’s a question of definition.

Everything seems to exist along some sort of continuum these days, defined not merely in opposition to something else, but by where it falls within a spectrum. For example, whereas people were once pronounced sane or crazy according to official whimsy, we now assess mental health according to a range of scales, which led to the breakthrough discovery that most of us are suffering a mental illness. In an effort to make all this comprehensible, there has also been an exponential rise in the use of flowcharts and other diagrams. In any case, it should be possible to forsake the traditionally dichotomous view of tennis tournaments as being ‘official’ or ‘exhibition’, and instead subscribe to a more supple definition.

I propose the Gangnam Scale. Under the Gangnam Scale any tournament can be defined by the point at which it becomes theoretically acceptable for its participants to mount imaginary K-pop steeds, and thenceforth to caper like lunatics. In the course of his recent blitzkrieg though South America, Federer went Gangnam at the change of ends during a singles match. This tour therefore scores a solid five on the Gangnam Scale. Djokovic and Almagro’s Gangnam-heavy tussle in Taipei last September rates similarly.

In Perth such folly was quarantined to the mixed doubles, traditionally a playground for absurdity. The singles matches remained uncontaminated (this was confirmed by the resident bio-containment team), and might therefore be considered safe for consumption. Meanwhile at official ATP events, such as Beijing’s China Open, Gangnam’s influence was only felt after the trophy ceremony. At the Majors Gangnam can be found only in designated safe zones, except for Wimbledon, which mandates a short prison term for any offending spectators or players. Grand Slams therefore default to a one on the Gangnam Scale.

Periodically any tournament can be audited by the ATP or WTA for traces of Gangnam or other exhibition-grade hilarity – and the list of proscribed memes and hijinks will broaden over time – by an independent unit co-funded by each tour, and reporting to the ITF. Assuming that an event’s draw comes up clean, it is permitted to award points according to its status. On the other hand, if a player willingly rolls up his sleeves and thus believes he has riotously parodied Rafael Nadal, all results from that tournament will be nullified, and struck from the official record for a period of no less than two years. Thus Kooyong, set to begin in two days, will remain just an exhibition – you may recall that last year Tomic stole an umpire’s shoe, a vaguely creepy move that earned him neither a reprimand nor a psychiatric evaluation.

Hopman Cup, despite its lighter tone, seemed clean. Consequently it rates a three on the Gangnam Scale. On his internal and therefore unofficial record, I suspect Tomic has added that lone victory over Djokovic to the three official losses. It’s something to savour while lounging at home on his huge pile of purloined shoes.