When Novak Djokovic stepped on to the court to face Lorenzo Sonego in the Vienna Open quarterfinals, many expected a quick beat-down that would put the Serb into the last four without any fuss. What followed was a quick beat-down alright - but of Djokovic, not Sonego.
There were two out-of-the-ordinary elements in this match. One was the very fact that Novak Djokovic lost to a 42nd-ranked player who couldn't even qualify for the tournament (Sonego got in as a lucky loser). But the second and more disconcerting element was how the World No. 1 lost.
Novak Djokovic won only three games over two sets, equaling his worst-ever games tally in a tennis match. The Serb’s numbers in every measurable statistic during the match were not only well below his lofty standards, but outright abysmal by anyone's standards.
Yes, you can argue that Lorenzo Sonego played lights-out tennis for the most part. The Italian’s bludgeoning forehand and missile-like serve took the racquet out of Novak Djokovic's hand several times; the 33-year-old might have had a tough time beating Sonego even if he was playing well. But by the end of the first set it wasn't just Sonego's brilliant play that was deciding the outcome of the points; Djokovic's distinctly disinterested demeanor also played a big part.
There was little to no conviction in Djokovic’s serve or groundstrokes. His usually otherworldly returning skills were absent, and so was his footwork. There were instances where the Serb refused to chase down returns that were a foot away from him, and others where he moved in the opposite direction before the serve was even completed.
The last game of the match was a downright farce. Novak Djokovic had managed to carve out a few break points in the second set despite putting in very little effort, but when he failed to capitalize on any of the chances he gave up even trying to put up a show for appearance's sake. Serving at 1-5, Djokovic repeatedly made half-hearted net approaches before poking his racquet at the volleys, almost seeming as though he wanted to net them.
Did Novak Djokovic tank the match? Many thought he did. But before we go any further, what exactly constitutes tanking in tennis terms?
What is tanking?
'Tanking' is a term used to signify a deliberate lack of effort on the part of any sportsperson (tennis player in this case) during a match. Needless to say, it can only happen when the player concerned is physically fine (like Novak Djokovic admitted he was against Sonego); if a player is injured or less than 100% fit, it is natural for them to not be able to put in full effort.
Arguments can be made about the mental causes of a sub-par performance - as Djokovic himself put forth in his press conference - but that doesn't change what tanking means. It is, plain and simple, an act of not putting in effort even when you are physically capable of doing so.
That said, tanking is pretty difficult to police. ‘Lack of effort’ is by nature a very subjective term, and there is no foolproof way to prove a player’s intentions on the court.
ATP guidelines against tanking
From the ATP Code of Conduct manual, the following rules are in place regarding taking:
i) A player shall use his best efforts during the match when competing in a tournament. Violation of this section shall subject a player to a fine up to $20,000 for each violation.
ii) For purposes of this rule, the Supervisor and/or the Chair Umpire shall have the authority to penalize a player 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, the ATP Supervisor may refer the matter to the ATP SVP - Rules & Competition who shall conduct an investigation to determine whether the player Major Offense of Aggravated Behavior or Conduct Contrary to the Integrity of the Game has occurred. Prize money earned at that event shall be held by ATP until the ATP SVP - Rules & competition has concluded his investigation and made a determination.
Why such a strict penalty for something that largely depends on a player's mood, you ask? There are multiple reasons, but the two most important are fan service and prevention of corruption.
Tennis - or any sport - runs on the basis of fan support, which means the organizers can't afford to have any player blatantly disrespect spectators or not give them their money's worth. Nobody wants to watch a player deliberately lose a match, so there have to be protocols in place to guard against that.
The second and perhaps more significant reason is that every tennis match has a lot of betting money riding on it. A player - especially a higher-ranked one - stands to gain a lot if he throws a match against the odds. So the moment a tennis official sees someone deliberately putting in less effort, it immediately puts them on alert.
Has Novak Djokovic been accused of tanking a match or parts of a match in the past?
The short answer is yes. In fact, Djokovic seems to be arousing suspicions of tanking in at least one match nearly every year. Here are a few examples?
Some renowned figures of the sport like John McEnroe, Jim Courier and Greg Rusedski lashed out at Novak Djokovic for not showing any interest in the match. This is what McEnroe had to say:
“It looks right now as if Djokovic doesn’t want to be on the court. This is tank city. I’m very surprised — especially with the way how it ended. That last set was really strange.”
Courier wasn't too dissimilar in his thinking as he remarked:
“Novak showed no fight and maybe it was partly down to the windy conditions. He despises playing in the wind. He really seemed to accept the outcome well before it was conclusive.”
Rusedski echoed the same:
“When have you seen Djokovic lose 0-6 in a Grand Slam quarter-final? There are question marks for me over where’s Novak — especially after that performance.”
The man himself, however, chose not to comment on it during his post-match interview. Novak Djokovic blamed the first set for his loss, where he squandered a couple of set points.
“It’s hard to comment on the third set. Nothing was going my way. Just a pretty bad set,” he told reporters. “All in all, it was decided in the first set."
2) Back in 2007, Novak Djokovic was accused of throwing his second-round match in the Paris Masters against Fabrice Santoro. The Serb lost 6-3, 6-2 causing Italian daily tuttosport to accuse the Serb of tanking.
Djokovic vehemently denied these claims. And in his defense, he had to visit a dentist just before the tournament started, to have his wisdom teeth removed. So it could be argued that he was not in the best shape physically.
After the match Djokovic said:
“I couldn’t give my 100%, not even 30% of my possibilities. He deserved to win. I’m still on medications. I didn’t practice for a whole week. I only started practicing two days ago. Physically, I’m not feeling at all good. It’s been a very long season and I’m really exhausted. I hope people will understand.”
3) Against Andy Murray in the final of the 2016 ATP Finals, Novak Djokovic lost 6-3, 6-4. But while the scoreline seems respectable, the Serb was extraordinarily flat and erratic throughout, especially on his serve.
Djokovic created just the single break point opportunity all match and looked far from the version of himself that he had displayed throughout the tournament.
En route to the final Djokovic had dropped just the one set (to Thiem), while registering convincing victories over David Goffin and Kei Nishikori. He also bagelled Thiem in the second set of their match, before winning the third 6-2.
The stark contrast in his performances raised several questions over his level of commitment against Murray in the final.
4) Against Alexander Zverev in the final of the 2018 ATP Finals, Novak Djokovic looked a completely different player to what he had been the rest of the tournament.
The Serb had won four consecutive matches without dropping a set or his serve leading up to the final. That included a thumping 6-4, 6-1 win over Zverev himself in the round-robin stage.
But in the final, or at least in the second half of it, Novak Djokovic was woefully out of sync. The first set was a closely fought affair till 4-4, after which Zverev broke to win it 6-4. In the next set, Novak Djokovic astonishingly lost his first two service games without much resistance.
He went on to lose that set 6-3, handing the German a very comfortable victory and raising many eyebrows about his performance.
Is Novak Djokovic the only active player who has been accused of tanking?
Often labelled the ‘bad boys’ of tennis, these four players have often thrown away games, sets and even matches for no rhyme or reason. Some of them have even been penalized (with fines) for their lack of effort.
It is perhaps easier to penalize a lower-ranked player for tanking, as opposed to someone in the top 10. That's probably why we only see players like these getting fined for lack of effort, and not someone like Novak Djokovic.
Nick Kyrgios and Benoit Paire in particular have had several tanking controversies in recent times. And Bernard Tomic was sometimes called the "Tank Engine", after the famous cartoon "Thomas the Tank Engine".
Interestingly, Roger Federer was also once fined for lack of effort, but that was way back in 1998 when he was 17 years old.
Playing at a small event in Kublis, Switzerland, the Swiss - who was then ranked No. 6 in his country - lost to the 11th-ranked player Armando Brunold.
The scoreline read 7-5, 6-2, and Federer was fined $100 by match referee Claudio Grether who later remarked:
“He simply stood unmotivated and nonchalantly on the court and double-faulted twice each game."
Of course, Federer has largely had a spotless record in this matter ever since. The 20-time Slam champion seemingly learned his lesson for good in 1998.
Even if Novak Djokovic has developed a tanking habit, is it so wrong?
Again a short answer: yes. Tanking is already 'wrong' in legal terms, given that there is a specific penalty for it in the rule book. And although the 'moral' terms are a bit more nuanced, there's no going around the fact that the sport becomes poorer when players indulge in it.
Firstly, it is disrespectful towards the opponent, to the organizers, and most importantly to the fans. Secondly, it suggests that the player in question isn't really playing for the love of the sport.
One of the arguments used to justify tanking is that a player takes the court in his individual capacity, and that he is free to do whatever he wants. And another line of thinking is that players are not machines; they may have a million things eating at their head, which prevents them from giving their best.
While both those arguments are valid, it's a little hard to rationalize every single incident of tanking that way. If it happens once or twice, it is understandable; but if it happens throughout your career, then it's probably just a bad habit.
The problem becomes even more severe when you're talking about the best player in the world, and possibly the best player ever. It's one thing for Kyrgios or Paire to tank a match; they are often brushed aside as clowns anyway, who are not to be taken seriously. But it's quite another for Novak Djokovic to be doing it.
The Serb is undoubtedly a legend of the sport. His ability on the court is second to none, and he is well on his way to breaking most of the main records in tennis.
As the current World No. 1 too, Djokovic is without question one of the foremost ambassadors of the sport. He is also the leader of the PTPA, an additional responsibility that he willingly took on.
Novak Djokovic wants people to believe that he is a player who is keen to fight for the rights of players and the tour in general. But then the very same Novak Djokovic goes ahead and deliberately robs the fans and organizers of the biggest draw of the tournament.
The 2020 Erste Bank Open was hosted with some difficulty given the global health crisis. Novak Djokovic managed to fulfil his ambition of finishing the year as No. 1 by winning two matches in Vienna, but was his subsequent tank-job fair to the tournament and the few hundreds of fans who had paid for tickets?
What made matters worse was that Djokovic practically admitted he had little desire to give his best at the tournament after he had accomplished his ranking goal.
"I've done what I needed to do and why I came here. I move on completely fine with today's result and looking to the next chapter," Djokovic said in his post-match presser.
There may have been some psychological issues for Djokovic during the match too, given the recent demise of a revered religious figure in Serbia. And yes, he has suffered quite a bit on the mental side of things in recent months, both on and off the court. But this wasn't the first time he had seemingly put in a deliberate tank-job, and it is unlikely to be the last.
As a champion and ambassador of tennis, Novak Djokovic habitually tanking matches is just not a good look - either for him, or for the sport. It is time the authorities start thinking of penalizing him the next time such an incident occurs.