“I cannot promise or guarantee that I will never ever do anything similar to that in my life.”
It’s been one year since Novak Djokovic’s infamous disqualification from the US Open for hitting the ball at a line judge. Djokovic was unbeaten in 2020 at the time and bidding to win his second Grand Slam of the year. But after being broken late in the first set by Pablo Carreno Busta in their fourth-round match he turned to his chair, hit the ball towards the back of the court where it struck the line judge, and became the first world No 1 to be disqualified from a Grand Slam.
Carreno Busta said he was “in shock” after seeing the incident, but others saw it as another example of poor judgement by Djokovic, whose previous outbursts included nearly hitting an official with a thrown racquet and firing a ball into the stands in anger.
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Djokovic apologised for the incident and said he needed to “turn this all into a lesson for my growth and evolution as a player and human being”. But he also added the caveat that he could not “guarantee” something similar would not happen again.
So, as he returns to New York bidding to win the Calendar Slam, has Djokovic’s behaviour improved over the past 12 months?

The bad

Those keeping an eye on Djokovic for his next outburst after the 2020 US Open didn’t have to wait long. Just two weeks later at the Italian Open he smashed a racquet in a fit of rage and then, in his next match, got a code violation for swearing. On both occasions Djokovic was not too apologetic.
After taking his frustration out on his racquet in a three-set win over Dominik Koepfer he said: “Let me tell you that it's not the first nor the last racquet that I'll break in my career. I have done it before. I'll probably do it again. I don't want to do it, but when it comes, it happens. That's how I guess I release sometimes my anger. I don't encourage that, definitely. But, look, we're all people. We all do our best. There were times and periods when I don't do that, and there are sometimes periods when I do.”
And after swearing against Casper Ruud he said: “It was a kind of the heat of the battle. There is a lot of intensity on the court. A lot of pressure for him, for both players. It’s kind of whatever happens, happens.”
Aside from blowing a kiss to a heckling fan in a Roger Federer cap, Djokovic’s emotions were largely kept in check at the French Open. He cut a frustrated figure at times at the season-ending ATP Finals, but it wasn’t until the 2021 Australian Open that he let loose on another racquet during his quarter-final victory over Alexander Zverev.
Play was halted after the incident as a ball kid was required to sweep up fragments of Djokovic's racquet from the court. The world No 1 was trailing at the time and said the smash was a “kind of relief channeling” and helped him to turn the match around.

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“Of course I'm not proud of these kind of moments. When I break the racquet, of course I'm not proud of that. You go through a lot of different emotions. You go through a lot of inner battle, and everyone is different. I have my own demons that I have to fight with, and I'm sure everybody else has them too. Everyone has their own way of dealing with that. To me it happens and then today it actually helped, even though I don't intentionally do it in order for it to help me.”
More frustration was to follow at the Italian Open. In a rain-affected match against Taylor Fritz it was not the racquet that bore the brunt of Djokovic’s frustration, but the umpire.

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“How much more do you want to play?” he yelled at the umpire as the rain came down. “I asked you three times and you are not checking anything.”
Speaking after winning the match, Djokovic said: “Even with that much experience behind me I still get upset and lose my cool. But it's OK. At the end of the day these are great lessons - I will try and take away some important things from this day."
Djokovic lost his cool again in his quarter-final match against Stefanos Tsitsipas as he flung his racquet into the advertising hoarding in frustration. And in Paris there was plenty of passion from Djokovic and also a moment of frustration as he kicked a board in anger after squandering a match point against Matteo Berrettini.

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But for all that has happened over the last year, he could not be heading to New York after a worse week.
The signs were there early on at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics as Djokovic smashed a racquet during a practice session with Alexander Zverev. But nothing was seen again until Djokovic faced Carreno Busta in the bronze-medal match after surprisingly losing to Zverev in the semi-finals. Djokovic threw his racquet into the empty stands and smashed another on a net post, with his opponent seemingly surprised that there was only one warning given by the umpire.

'He's got to be careful!' - Djokovic hurls racket into stands in fury

While Djokovic was apologetic, he faced criticism for his behaviour, including from rival Rafael Nadal.
"You have to try to avoid them. The image is not the best. It is important to avoid this, especially as a role model for many children. He is the number one in the world and one of best in history. It’s strange that someone so successful reacts this way from time to time, but in the end he’s very competitive and reacts like that.”

The good

While there have been flashpoints, Djokovic has perhaps faced more adversity over the last year than most of his rivals, and he has handled a lot of it well.
In Australia he faced criticism for making a reported list of demands regarding Covid-19 protocols for players. He also played most of the Australian Open with a muscle injury suffered against Fritz in the third round. But aside from his racquet smash against Zverev he was largely on his best behaviour in Melbourne.
At the French Open he was particularly fired up against Berrettini but kept his cool in difficult moments against Lorenzo Musetti, Nadal and Stefanos Tsitsipas. And at Wimbledon the only thing that seemed to frustrate him was some overly-loud supporters.

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While his behaviour has been far from perfect, there are some other factors at play. In the background Djokovic has been dealing with trying to get the breakaway Professional Tennis Players’ Association off the ground for the past year. That affected his co-founder Vasek Pospisil at the Miami Open as he had an outburst on court following a meeting with the ATP. Last year’s US Open also came just a few months after the ill-fated Adria Tour, for which Djokovic was widely criticised.
Like the rest of the players, Djokovic has had to deal with Covid-19 protocols and restrictions this year. Life on tour, living in bubbles must be draining. Zverev suggested after an outburst earlier this year that "maybe the bubbles are getting to us a bit".
Add the extra pressures on Djokovic shoulders to win every match and it is easy to see why he might be prone to the occasional outburst.

The verdict

Has Djokovic’s behaviour improved over the last year? On balance, probably not, but then he never promised that it would.
Even after his latest outburst at the Olympics he admitted it likely won’t be his last. "It’s not the first time and not the last time, probably. It’s not nice of course but it’s part of, I guess, who I am. I don’t like doing these things. I’m sorry for sending this kind of message but we’re all human beings and sometimes it’s difficult to control your emotions."
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