Novak Djokovic has once again been accused of using medical time outs tactically, this time in the French Open quarterfinals, but do Pablo Carreno Busta's claims hold water?
“He didn’t surprise me [that he asked for a physio],” Carreno Busta told the press after their match.
“It’s a good thing. It’s a sign that he is losing and that I was playing well, because he always does that.
“It’s something that he has been doing for years. When he is down, he asks for the trainer.”
'Novak Djokovic has history'
Well, yes, don’t we all?
‘History,’ though, is not a snapshot of events taken in isolation. It also has to come with context and be part of the wider narrative.
It is true, undeniably, that Djokovic has been accused of misusing medical time outs before.
It seems to go all the way back to 2008 when Andy Roddick called him out on it before their quarterfinal, which Djokovic went on to win.
When asked about Djokovic’s growing injury list by reporters, Roddick said: “Bird flu? Anthrax? SARS? Common cough and a cold? If it’s there, it’s there. There’s just a lot.
“You know, he’s either quick to call a trainer or he’s the most courageous guy of all time. I think it’s up for you guys to decide.”
Two years later, Djokovic would be diagnosed with severe intolerance to wheat and dairy products, as well as a mild sensitivity to tomatoes.
That probably doesn’t sound like much, and many of us likely have similar conditions. However, we are not trying to be elite sportsmen.
Dr William Davis, a renowned cardiologist, explained of wheat intolerance: “It has the potential to cripple performance, cloud mental focus, and bring a champion to his knees.”
Since discovering it and adjusting his diet, Djokovic is no longer plagued by the kind of issues to which Roddick referred. It didn’t, though, suddenly make him Superman.
Like just about every other player, he suffers physically. Tennis does that. Further accusations were made in 2015 and 2016 by Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka respectively, but Djokovic is not the only player to require a medical time out in a big match.
Roger Federer was described to be ‘legally cheating’ by Pat Cash when he called medical time outs in two matches at the 2015 Australian Open. Federer also needed one at the 2019 US Open and twice more again in 2020 in Melbourne.
Djokovic needed one himself in the 2020 final, but opponent Thiem said it ‘didn’t bother him.’
Let’s not forget two important factors here too: Conditions in Australia are notoriously tough - for everyone. It can’t be a case that they are allowed to be tough for Federer yet not Djokovic. Players put their bodies through a lot in that Grand Slam, especially since it comes after two months away from competition.
Secondly, Grand Slams are designed to be gruelling physical tests. Matches are longer and tournaments twice as long. The likes of Djokovic and Federer who go deeper in more Slams than anyone else are naturally going to suffer more physically.
Carreno Busta’s hypocrisy
“Then in the fourth set I felt a little bit tight in my lower back. That’s my important point, on my lower back. The physio told me that it was a little bit blocked. He tried to do his things. It was incredible. After that I didn’t feel 100% because we were playing, like, for four hours, but I could play my best tennis again.”
Not the words of Novak Djokovic after beating Carreno Busta at Roland Garros, but Carreno Busta’s words after beating Denis Shapovalov at the US Open barely even a month ago.
The Spaniard called a medical time out after being bageled in the fourth set. He won the decider.
His subsequent accusations of Djokovic surely ring even more hollow given his own testimony just weeks earlier about the ability of a physio to help a player through injury mid-match.
Carreno Busta then called another medical time out in the semi-finals after losing two sets against Alexander Zverev, incidentally.
"No, of course I didn't expect him to come to life like that, especially after the medical,” Shapovalov said.
“I mean, he looked dead in the fourth. It's a little bit shocking.”
There is nothing wrong with Carreno Busta calling for a medical time out. Just as with Djokovic, the reasons are valid. Grand Slams are tough on the body. It just makes his accusations a hell of a lot less credible.
The incident in question
History, of course, plays a part in analysis but every situation has to be taken on its own merits.
Firstly, it is impossible to stress strongly enough that, despite Carreno Busta’s comments after the match, Djokovic did NOT call a medical time out in their match.
He did call the physio, but everything was done in the natural changeover between games, meaning there was no disruption at all to the Spaniard’s rhythm.
There is also a strange rewriting of events that now suggest that Djokovic began showing signs of injury only after he started to fall behind. That simply wasn’t the case.
Djokovic walked onto the court with a heavily strapped neck, was stretching himself out on his left side during the opening game, and anyone who has seen Djokovic even semi-occasionally could clearly see he was not moving with his usual ease from the very first point.
It simply was not a case that Djokovic faked injury because he fell behind. Watching him give up on points he usually never would during the opening set suggest he fell behind because he was injured.
We can go a little further back though, too. Djokovic first flagged up a neck injury when he pulled out of the Cincinnati doubles with the injury in August.
“I’m trying to deal with it on a daily basis,” he said after his opening round win there. ”It’s been like that for the past three or four days.”
It’s all well and good saying that Djokovic ‘has history’ and ‘a reputation’ for this kind of thing. History doesn’t change, but the context in which we view it certainly can. Reputations are not always deserved – good or bad – and are very seldom reflective of the complexity of a person’s ever-evolving character.
Has Djokovic required a medical time out before? Absolutely. You’d expect nothing less. He has done it no more in recent times than anyone else, though. Even his principal accuser this time, Pablo Carreno Busta, has done it twice more than him in the last two Grand Slams.
And, let's be absolutely brutally honest here… the idea that Novak Djokovic - one of the greatest players of all time - would need to conceive of a plan to fake injury before a match just in case he needed to sneakily call a medical time out to disrupt the imperious and insurmountable rhythm of the giant that is Pablo Carreno Busta is a little… flawed, surely?
We all love a conspiracy theory, but Djokovic being injured, getting treatment, feeling better, and winning a tennis match against a solid yet unspectacular player seems to have a lot more grounding in reality.
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