Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal conjured up a flurry of fabulous rallies, scintillating shots and tremendous tennis in their two-set tennis festival at the Foro Italico earlier on Friday. In the midst of the World No. 1 pinching two sets from a reinvigorated Nadal’s racket, there was a rather peculiar scene during the middle of the first set involving chair umpire Carlos Bernardes, Djokovic and whole lot of more or less unauthorized touching. René Denfeld reviews what was a bizarre interval act to an otherwise tremendous match.
When the Romans conquered the Sicilian city of Syracuse, the city’s most famous inhabitant, noted Greek astronomer and mathematician Archimedes, was the most prominent victim of three-year long siege — but not before exclaiming a phrase that has survived all empires and centuries:
“Do not disturb my circles.” — noli turbare circulos meos.
A few thousand years later, Novak Djokovic, a fellow luminary — albeit in an entirely different field — found himself vicariously reliving those words.
Before his Archimedes moment, Djokovic very much found his own conqueror in Rafael Nadal during the early stages of his quarterfinal match at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome.
In their first encounter on clay in 2016, it was the Spaniard who looked every bit like the clay champion that he had been for the better past of the past 10 years. Nadal came out of the starting blocks looking sharp, hitting through his groundstrokes and finding a great balance between depth and margin in Rome’s rather blustery conditions on Friday.
A packed crowd on Campo Centrale watched the Serbian No. 1 struggle through his opening six games — and while it wasn’t in quite as disastrous fashion as during Djokovic’s third round matches against Thomaz Bellucci the previous evening — the errors coming off of Djokovic’s racket were uncharacteristic at best. His performance probably wouldn’t have felt as jarring if they hadn’t been juxtaposed to a Nadal on the other side, who made a drastic leap in performance — not only compared to his dire semifinal performance against Andy Murray in Madrid last Saturday, but also looking back at his first two matches in the Italian capital over the past few days.
During the (in)famous seventh game of the opening set, the momentum to began to shift, although Djokovic began in very similar fashion to his opening 25 minutes of the encounter — missing what was intended to be a very safe kick second serve to go down 0-30. Nadal probably should’ve gone up 15-40 afterwards, but he sent an inside-out forehand wide while he had the Serb on the ropes.
Djokovic then managed to claw his way back into the game, leading 40-30. During one of the first set’s most spectacular rallies, the World No. 1 used a successful drop shot and lob combination on Nadal who ran back underneath the floating ball, getting out from underneath the ball just in time to turn around and whip a tremendous inside-in forehand down the line past Djokovic at the net — or did he not?
As the ball landed, it was hard to distinguish a call from the line umpire from the ecstatic cheers of the crowd, but both Djokovic’s and Nadal’s eyes were firmly on the spot that was flirting with the white tape separating good from bad, right from wrong, and in from out.
Carlos Bernardes was out of chair fairly immediately whereas Djokovic was back on the way to his own bench for the changeover, having pointed at the mark that he perceived to be missing the line by a smidgen, surmising that he had taken the game to chip away at Nadal’s lead.
The Brazilian chair umpire’s reading of the sand grains told him a different story: Bernardes saw the ball cleaning the faintest edge of the line, thus giving Nadal the point and nullifying Djokovic’s advantage, taking the game back to deuce. The Serb was looked at the official’s repeated circling of the mark with disbelief, then stepped closer and and finally pushed Bernardes’ arm away from the clay scene and telling him, “Don’t touch it!” — potentially tampering with the evidence, or rather, disturbing some circles.
Djokovic, visibly annoyed with the ultimate call and the process that went into the decision-making, maybe even needed this kind of wake up call to snap him out of his early funk and galvanize himself. The Serb ultimately ended up holding for 4-3, avoiding going down a double-break and having an even bigger mountain to climb — a turning point for the opening set, and maybe even the match, considering how close an affair the two-hour spectacle was.
A few hours after the Brazilian umpire (almost) “disturbed the sand,” a content World No. 1 sat down in front of the media, happy to have passed one of the toughest litmus tests on the red dirt. The Serb explained how much confidence he takes from winning a difficult battle against a resurgent Nadal, where this puts him in his preparations for Roland Garros, but it wasn’t until the final question of the press conference that conversation turned to the moment between the currently-best male tennis player in the world and the chair umpire — eliciting reactions at both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in between.
Did he go too far? Was this worth a point penalty — or something greater — and will he get a fine afterwards?
Did the umpire mess up? Was the World No. 1 in the right to prevent Bernardes from further sandbox paintings? And did he even touch any grain of the red dirt at all?
“The only thing I minded with Carlos [Bernardes] is he was actually touching the mark and he was touching the line,” the Serb explained and went on with a laugh: “So I don’t know, he was kind of creating his own mark.
“That’s why I told him, please don’t touch the mark…but you know, look, everybody makes a mistake. I understand it was difficult to see; [it] was so close.”
While Djokovic explained his version of events, he didn’t mention the moment that actually divided opinions. The Serb showed himself forgiving what he perceived to be “unauthorized touching” of the mark while leaving his own “unauthorized touching” of Bernardes off the table — whether on purpose or not.
The ATP rules on the issue of touching officials, spectators and fans are fairly clear:
c) Physical abuse
i) Players shall not at any time physically abuse any oﬃcial, opponent, spectator or other person within the precincts of the tournament site. For purposes of this rule, physical abuse is the unauthorized touching of an oﬃcial, opponent, and spectator or other person.
ii) Violation of this section shall subject a player to a ﬁne up to $10,000 for each violation. In addition, if such violation occurs during a match, the player shall be penalized in accordance with the Point Penalty Schedule. In circumstances that are ﬂagrant and particularly injurious to the success of a tournament, or are singularly egregious, a single violation of this section shall also constitute the player Major Oﬀense of Aggravated Behavior.
Of course, at first glance, Djokovic removing Bernardes’ arm away from the mark in question does not appear as “physical abuse” — and most would view it as an invasion of private and personal space at worst. Within many other sports, however, the touching of an official is often reason enough for at least a warning — particularly in sports prone to more physical body contact such as football, basketball or handball.
With the ATP specifically stating “unauthorized touching” as a form to physical abuse, however, Djokovic’s moment with Bernardes then qualifies as such. The enforcement of the rule, however, particularly during the match was down to the Brazilian and as a result, he all but authorized the World No. 1 to do what he did in retrospective. That’s not only giving the Serb a pass but also made Bernardes look like he didn’t stick up for himself — when the rulebook clearly provided an opportunity for him to do so.
Djokovic’s frustration with the decision was understandable and every amateur knows about the frustration of disagreeing with your opponent or an umpire about the interpretation of a mark on clay court. The 11-time Grand Slam champion had every right to intervene if Bernardes was really “creating his own mark” — but not physically. When people struggle with the decision of an authority, there is usually a higher authority to appeal to: in Djokovic’s case, a court-side ATP Supervisor.
But Djokovic didn’t and that’s where he was in the wrong — regardless of maintaining that after the match he was told that the ball was out (on Hawkeye), particularly considering the technical review’s unreliability on the uneven surface.
Djokovic is hardly the only one to have “pushed the boundaries” with a chair umpires or officials, many before him have, but that doesn’t make this or any of the other behavior right. The degree to which they are punishable or even lead to the contrary is another matter, as is the question how much of a “big name” bonus Bernardes granted the Serb.
While Djokovic showed understanding of what he perceived to be an error on the umpire’s behalf, it would have been nice to see him admit that there was also an error on his side.
“But it appeared that he loved [sic] the clay with his finger,” the World No. 1 finished his press conference, as he drew another circle on the desk in front of him.