Novak Djokovic’s fractious week in Rome continued with another on-court showdown.
Having received a time-violation warning from chair umpire Mohamed Lahyani, the world No 1 responded by accusing the Swede of behaving more like a thespian than a tennis official.
The outburst came 24 hours after Djokovic’s feisty run-in with British No 1 Cameron Norrie, and shortly before he was eliminated from the Italian Open by Denmark’s Holger Rune.
“What’s the drama of you waiting between English and Italian?” yelled Djokovic, who had just been warned for exceeding the allotted 25-second period between points. “Are you acting here or what? Why do you call the score for 20 seconds?”
The outburst drew knowing nods from tennis fans on social media. While Lahyani is generally rated among the best umpires on the tour, he is also notorious for the flamboyant – and extremely loud – manner in which he announces the score.
This might seem like an obscure detail, but officiating guidelines state that an umpire should start the 25-second shot clock immediately after announcing the score.
Lahyani was using Italian first, and then English, but the drama surrounding the whole performance made it difficult for Djokovic to judge exactly how much time he had left.
At least the players maintained a spirit of mutual respect throughout, in contrast to Djokovic’s stormy encounter with Norrie on Tuesday. After that match, he had accused the British No 1 – who struck him on the left leg with a full-blooded smash – of “not fair play”.
Djokovic’s press-conference interview also found him complaining about Norrie celebrating points too aggressively and calling a medical time-out at what seemed to be a tactical moment. Djokovic was not the only man to show hostility towards Lahyani.
Rune was outraged when Lahyani insisted that a return from Djokovic had landed on the baseline, leading to his first dropped service game of the match. “You’re an absolute joke,” Rune raged during the ensuing changeover.
Djokovic was clearly stressed at his below-par performance in a 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 defeat. The result means that he will go into Roland Garros without a clay-court semi-final behind him. Remarkably, this has happened only once before in his storied career, and that was in 2005, soon after he had turned 18.
Health issues seemed to affect Djokovic. He called the medical staff to the court after three games for a delivery of painkillers, and was still wearing a sleeve on the suspect right elbow that kept him out of Madrid.
He was generally a step short of his usual electric footspeed, particularly during the first set, although his innate quality is such that Rune still needed to deliver an outstanding performance.
The upset contributes to the impression that the upcoming French Open – which starts in Paris a week on Sunday – will be one of the most unpredictable majors in decades.
With Djokovic lacking his usual clinical edge, and Rafael Nadal absent from the tour since January, Rune and Carlos Alcaraz (who were born a week apart in 2003) are both emerging among the bookmakers’ favourites.
And their odds only shortened further when Nadal announced that he will be holding a press conference on Thursday at his tennis academy in Mallorca. The expectation is that he will probably withdraw from Roland Garros.
The Italian Open has arguably been Djokovic’s most successful event outside the four slams. He has six titles there, and 67 wins overall.
But this exit means that Sunday’s final will be the first in Rome to feature neither Djokovic nor Nadal since 2004. Djokovic was behind for the entirety of yesterday’s match, starting with a dropped service game.
Even the middle set, which he stole against the run of play, featured some anomalies – including the disputed line call that disrupted Rune’s concentration, and an hour-long rain-break.
When the players returned, Djokovic quickly picked up the two points he needed to complete the set. But he had soon slipped back to a 0-4 deficit in the decider, as Rune turned on the style.
It was a match full of incident, including a 34-shot rally that the Amazon Prime commentary team immediately nominated as the point of the year.
The lung-busting, thigh-burning exchange ended, appropriately, with one of Rune’s many delightful drop-shots – this one a lethal doodlebug that spun sideways to escape Djokovic’s out-thrust racket.
“I enjoyed every moment out there,” said Rune. His obvious relish for battle is part of a compelling package, and has brought him into conflict with a couple of players – notably Stan Wawrinka and Casper Ruud – in the past.
Yet he and Djokovic, whom he has now beaten twice in a row, seem to get on well, with Djokovic saying on Tuesday that Rune reminds him of his own younger self.
Djokovic will slide back to No 2 in Monday’s new world rankings, behind Alcaraz, while Rune could potentially climb into the top five if he were to win this event.
This result was another tremor in the gradual shifting of tennis’s tectonic plates. But while Djokovic may have been suffering some unusual defeats of late – to 21-year-old Lorenzo Musetti in Monte Carlo, for instance, or compatriot Dusan Lajovic in Banja Luka – he is a different animal at the majors, where he loves to put the next generation in their place.
The youngest man to beat him at a slam remains Hyeon Chung of South Korea, who turns 27 this week. Away from the court, meanwhile, Djokovic is reported to be closing his tennis centre in Belgrade after 15 years.
He hosted the Serbian Open there in 2021 and 2022, but only via a licence leased to him by Romanian billionaire Ion Tiriac. And Tiriac has since claimed the licence back.
Meanwhile, Andy Murray slumped to a 6-3, 6-0 defeat against Stan Wawrinka in the second round of the ATP Challenger Tour event in Bordeaux.
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