Five-ring Circus

Novak Djokovic Smashed His Racket and Quit. But Is He a Jerk?

The superstar has been called jerky for years. Let’s weigh the evidence.

Novak Djokovic's follow-through after hitting a forehand, with the Olympics Jerk Watch label in the bottom right corner.
A racket that survived. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images.

Name: Novak Djokovic

Home country: Serbia

Known for: Being great at tennis, throwing on-court tantrums, disliking bread

Why he might be a jerk: Though Novak Djokovic is one of the greatest tennis players of all time—he’s currently ranked first in the world and has won all three of this year’s majors—there have long been whispers that he is also a world-class jerk. Well, not whispers, exactly—more like a series of very public unsportsmanlike outbursts from the Serbian tennis star. At the French Open this June, for instance, Djokovic pantomimed throwing his racket into the empty stands and then kicked a courtside advertising board, leaving a visible dent. At the 2020 U.S. Open, Djokovic was disqualified after he struck a line judge in the throat with a tennis ball that he had hit in anger after losing a game. (To be fair, he did not intentionally target the line judge.) While there is a long tradition in men’s tennis of some stars being temperamental jerks, any tradition that might conceivably end with a line judge getting throat-smacked by a tennis ball is a de facto bad one, in my opinion.

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Djokovic’s latest on-court meltdown came on Saturday in Tokyo, as he was competing for the bronze medal in men’s singles tennis. After losing a point to Spain’s Pablo Carreño Busta, Djokovic got very angry and chucked his racket—for real this time—into the empty stands. Later on in the set, after losing another point, Djokovic destroyed his new racket by pounding it against one of the posts that hold up the net. Perhaps he suspected that these rackets were haunted or something; perhaps the power of Christ compelled him to fling and destroy them in order to exorcise their resident ghosts. Perhaps, though, Djokovic is just a sore-losing jerk.

This latter thesis was broadly confirmed later on Saturday when, after losing the match to Carreño Busta, Djokovic abruptly withdrew from his scheduled mixed doubles bronze medal match that day, claiming that he had injured his shoulder (perhaps after violently assaulting that post with his haunted racket). Djokovic’s exit meant that his mixed doubles partner, Nina Stojanovic, was forced to forfeit the match and miss out on a chance for the bronze medal, since you can’t very well play mixed doubles by yourself. (I’ve tried, and have received nothing but scorn and disqualifications.) Throwing your own racket into the stands is one thing. Symbolically throwing your mixed doubles partner’s racket into the stands is another, much jerkier thing. Being the human embodiment of the casual disrespect that mixed doubles has long received in the tennis community is perhaps the jerkiest thing of all.

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These actions were rendered all the jerkier by the context in which they happened. Days earlier, speaking to the media, Djokovic observed that “pressure is a privilege,” and that “without pressure there is no professional sport. If you are aiming to be at the top of the game you better start learning how to deal with pressure.” While some people immediately supposed that Djokovic was referring to the gymnast Simone Biles and her sudden withdrawal from the women’s gymnastics team finals, further examination indicates that the question Djokovic was answering had to do with his own quest for a “Golden Slam”—winning all four major tennis tournaments and the Olympics tennis competition in a single year. So Djokovic was likely just referring to himself, not to Biles. Either way, it is a supremely jerky and frankly hilarious turn of events to lecture the media about grace under pressure one day and then to mangle your racket by banging it against a post just because you’re mad that you lost a point.

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There’s plenty of non-Olympic evidence that Djokovic might be a jerk, as many followers of professional tennis are aware. In 2020, as the tennis circuit was locked down along with the rest of the world in response to the then-emerging COVID-19 pandemic, Djokovic responded by organizing a series of tennis exhibitions in Serbia and Croatia. Over the course of its short lifespan, the Adria Tour, as it was called, became known for its indifference toward masking and social distancing, and the whole thing ended abruptly when many participants, including Djokovic and his wife, tested positive for COVID-19. Djokovic later claimed that he was made the target of a “witch hunt” and received “malicious” criticism as a result of his choice to produce a massive tennis superspreader event; when asked about the experience by the New York Times in August 2020, Djokovic insisted that “if I had the chance to do the Adria Tour again, I would do it again.” Way to learn nothing from your COVID misadventures, you jerk!

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Finally, it has come to my attention that Djokovic follows a very complicated diet and that he has an ongoing vendetta against bread. (While Djokovic may have some sort of gluten allergy, from what I can tell he does not have celiac disease.) Being a picky eater is perhaps not in itself evidence of jerkdom, but I would like to note that bread is delicious, and if Djokovic had filled up on bread at the Olympic Village, perhaps he would’ve been too logy to destroy his own tennis racket, and we’d all be much happier right now. Also, athletes who attribute their sporting successes to the things they do or do not eat have often struck me as jerks.

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Why he might not be a jerk: He plays with passion. He’s hot-tempered. He’s a fiery competitor. These are all euphemisms that sports writers have long used to make excuses for jerky on-court behavior by male tennis players such as Djokovic, and while it’s a bad habit to repeatedly downplay bad behavior from athletes, I suppose it is at least worth considering that Djokovic’s habitual aggression on the tennis court sort of works for him? He’s the best tennis player in the world, after all, and who’s to say that his own aggressive mentality isn’t part of what makes him great? I mean, Djokovic might not say that—Djokovic would probably attribute his own excellent performance to the fact that he avoids bread—but still. Being aggressive on the playing field does not necessarily mean that you are also a jerk. It might just mean that you “want it,” which is another sports writing euphemism. You know what? Let’s just move on to the next point.

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It is worth repeating that Djokovic almost certainly wasn’t referring to Simone Biles in his much-discussed pre-match interview. Was it a jerky thing for him to say regardless? In light of his later performance on the court, yes, yes, it was. But it does not actually appear that he was subtweeting Biles with his interview; he was just mouthing dumb platitudes like countless athletes have done before him.

Djokovic partially blamed the extreme Tokyo heat for his poor performance and misbehavior, and while this sounds very much like an excuse made by a sore loser, it is also worth noting that other tennis competitors in Tokyo have said similar things about the weather. Italian tennis player Fabio Fognini, for example, blamed the heat for his use of a homophobic slur toward himself during a third-round match against Daniil Medvedev. Medvedev, for his part, also thought it was too hot, asking an umpire “who will take responsibility” if he were to die because of the heat. The lessons here are that it probably was very hot in Tokyo; that tennis players are sort of drama queens; and that at least Djokovic didn’t slur himself or anyone else while having his meltdown.

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Djokovic was facing Pablo Carreño Busta in Tokyo when he destroyed his racket, and he was also facing Carreño Busta at the U.S. Open last year when he nailed that line judge in the neck with a ball. Has anyone stopped to consider that Carreño Busta might be emitting secret jerk vibes here, perhaps by means of some sort of “jerk ray” that causes his competitors to do incredibly jerky things? What if Djokovic is just trying to locate and destroy Carreño Busta’s jerk ray by hucking balls and rackets all over the place? Scoff if you must, but I think I’ve just come up with the plot to the next M. Night Shyamalan movie.

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Though Djokovic’s Tokyo Games experience might not have gone the way that he expected, it is worth noting that his 2016 Rio experience ended with him sharing a long, heartfelt hug after he was upset by Juan Martín del Potro, an Argentine tennis player who earlier that day had gotten stuck in an Olympic Village elevator. Anyone who goes out of his way to congratulate his opponent while also consoling him after he was stuck in an elevator can’t be all bad.

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Jerk score: I’ll give Novak Djokovic 1.5 out of 3 for style, because a real jerk would have shown up at the mixed doubles match as if he were going to play, only to yell “Psych! Psych! Psych!” and then zoom away on a cool motorcycle. 1.5 out of 3 for technical merit, because it would’ve been cooler if he’d thrown his racket out of the stadium. 2.5 out of 3 for execution, with a half-point deducted because he did not actually find and destroy Pablo Carreño Busta’s jerk ray. And 1 out of 1 in the category of “Did he make the writer of this article irrationally hungry for delicious bread?” 6.5 out of 10 for Novak Djokovic. Next!

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