In the Heat of the Moment

Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka each lost their cool en route to early round upsets in Madrid.

Perhaps more so than others, tennis is a sport in which the gladiator narrative is consistently embraced. It features two competitors going head-to-head in a war of attrition. Heavy forehands and backhands are akin to body blows, and the repetition of these rallies akin to rounds in boxing. If one player wins a long, grueling rally, they’ve “won the battle” but will “lose the war.” As professionals, it should be expected that players are held responsible for all of their actions while on court; however, as tennis continues to embrace this warrior mentality narrative, this really isn’t the case. This was fully on display early in Madrid this week, as Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka flamed out before the quarterfinals; both players did not go quietly, as each was embroiled in controversy in defeat.

Djokovic faced off against rising talent Grigor Dimitrov in the second round on Tuesday. Djokovic, despite suffering what looked like a severe ankle injury in Davis Cup, managed to unseat Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo and came into Madrid on a solid run of clay court form. On the other hand, Dimitrov has had numerous matches against the ATP’s best in his career and has fallen just short, sometimes agonizingly so, each time.

After Djokovic took a nearly-eight minute medical timeout for an alleged recurrence of his ankle injury when down a set and a break, the Madrid crowd began to turn against the World No. 1. Dimitrov flourished in the increasingly hostile on-court environment, as the partisan crowd let Djokovic know their increased displeasure with everything that he did.

After saving a match point and winning the second set tiebreak, Djokovic had some choice words involving some certain body parts for the crowd in his native language. However, he was not penalized for his outburst. The merit of the audible obscenity rule has long been debated, particularly in situations where the chair umpire does not speak the same language as the offending player. Although Carlos Bernardes speaks multiple languages, Serbian is not one of them. Djokovic would eventually lose the match, and was booed off the court.

Azarenka, playing in her first event since Indian Wells due to an ankle injury, bested Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in her scrappy return to action on Monday. However, after surrendering a break in the third set to Eakterina Makarova on Wednesday, she lost her cool with chair umpire Mariana Alves. On the first point of the seventh game, Azarenka lamely missed a chipped forehand and decimated her racket. After having previously given Azarenka a warning for an audible English obscenity early in the second set, Alves docked Azarenka a point with her second code violation for racket abuse. The Belarusian did not take too kindly to the penalty, and let Alves know about it. Makarova would eventually win the last five games of the match to claim victory.

This isn’t your typical argument with an umpire; whether she intended to or not, Azarenka took a cheap shot at the umpire from Portugal. Anyone with a sense of tennis history knows Alves’ track record of questionable officiating decisions, highlighted by the infamous match between Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati at the US Open in 2004. Nonetheless, her previously poor decisions have no bearing in a match where she made an entirely correct decision, and handled Azarenka impeccably. However, by saying what she said to Alves’ face, Azarenka is making her aware that the entire locker room knows of this previous history; she’s undermining Alves’ authority right in front of her for not only that match, but for future matches.

Two outbursts, two different reactions.

A majority of the outrage over Djokovic’s on-court reactions subsided once the match had concluded; a sizable number of people defended the World No. 1, saying that it would have been impossible for him not to react in any way to such a hostile environment. Regardless of the tongue, he still directed profane abuse at fans and other observers, and this is truly inexcusable. On the other hand, Azarenka suffered much post-match scrutiny for an outburst that took place entirely in English. Are these facts correlated? Perhaps.

Of course, players are human and it’s naïve to expect that they not show emotions during a match. However, “the heat of the moment” and “in the midst of battle” should not be appropriate excuses for poor behavior. As two of the top players in tennis, both Djokovic and Azarenka should know how to conduct themselves better on the court. All players should be held to the same standard, regardless of how (and in what language) that this emotion is expressed.