This is a story of the crusader and the diplomat: two men, born within a week of each other, who have shared tennis courts all over the world for nearly two decades and who are now at the summit of their sport, yet some distance apart on one key issue – corruption.
“Batman” Andy Murray and “Ambassador” Novak Djokovic are not as close as the script to their fairytale would have it, and never was that more starkly illustrated than their public disagreement this week over the extent of drug-taking in tennis. They are similarly at odds over match-fixing.
It was a rolling tale that had the potential to implode or to splutter. As of now, it lingers: world No2 Murray first says he had concerns about some opponents in the past who did not seem to tire in long matches; world No1 Djokovic, who has had plenty of long matches against Murray, says it is all OK, he’s spoken to his friend and he’s not pointing the finger at anyone in particular, and that tennis is clean.
Both are opinions but the latter is patently flawed because it flies in the face of recent history. Did Djokovic not see Maria Sharapova’s TV press conference admitting she had failed a drugs test for the banned meldonium?
Did he not read the latest tally of players caught using the drug: 173? Does he not remember the suspicions of match-fixing raised again during this year’s Australian Open?
Yet ESPN, in a report rather than a commentary, reflected the wholly misleading party line across tennis in their website headline: “Djokovic relaxed about Murray doping outburst”.
It is unlikely Djokovic was at all relaxed. Speaking at the Laureus Sports Awards, where he was crowned alongside Serena Williams as the outstanding athlete of 2015, the best player in the world, resplendent in black-tie and tux, went straight down the middle in a heavily corporate environment that does not encourage rancour. He was just clarifying the situation, soothing concerns. Behind the smiles, though, Djokovic will have been at least peeved, probably upset and possibly raging at Murray.
As for Murray, he made no “outburst”. He responded to questions in an interview with the Mail On Sunday – and what he said was not radically different from views he expressed to the Guardian last November.
Responding then to events in Russia, where the drugs-testing authorities were exposed as corrupt and their athletes painted as the witless dupes of a secretive sporting culture, Murray reckoned all sports were tainted. And he doubted there was “confidence in the locker room” that everybody in tennis was clean.
“I don’t know,” Murray said. “I haven’t spoken to all of the players to find out if that’s the case. I just do think that we could do more to make sure that the anti-doping process is better, is better funded, there’s more testing. I think all sports need to do that because it’s getting out of control now. Every week something is coming out, and it’s not just people failing tests. Look at the stuff that’s happening in Russia now, and I don’t think it’s just a Russian problem. It’s getting out of control and the authorities need to do something.The governing bodies need to do something to stop it, because it’s been a bad few years.”
And was he confident that every opponent he had played over a long career had been clean? “You can’t say with 100% certainty,” he said. “I don’t think that anyone in any sport can currently say that that’s been the case. You hope and you want that to be the case but I really don’t think that anyone can say with 100% certainty that that’s the case, after everything that’s gone on.”
And that is pretty much what he said again this week – crucially adding that his doubts stemmed from the ability of some players to stay strong on court for long periods of time. It was a high‑risk addendum to his argument. He had just narrowed the cast of suspects dramatically.
He put it this way: “Have I ever been suspicious of someone? Yeah. You hear things. It’s harder to tell in our sport as people can make big improvements to a stroke or start serving better because they have made technical changes. If it’s purely physical and you’re watching someone playing six-hour matches over and over and showing no signs of being tired, you’d look at that.”
That drew a quick, stinging rebuke from Boris Becker, Djokovic’s coach and not one to tip-toe through a debate. There is history, too: Becker upset Murray’s mother, Judy, when he accused him of being “a mummy’s boy”. In the past he has revealed how relationships between his player and Roger Federer were cooler than presented; and he even disclosed that Serbian members of Djokovic’s courtside box often called out to him in their own language.
But Becker, the day after the Murray interview, showed none of the reserve Djokovic would later display. Murray, said Becker, was “totally out of order” – adding that he reckoned the Scot and his player and everyone else were “clean”, because there was no proof. You see what you want to see.
In the history of the game, only 11 matches have gone longer than six hours. Apart from Nicolas Mahut and John Isner, who somehow endured 11 hours and five minutes of each other’s company on Court 18 at Wimbledon six years ago, no current players on the Tour match Murray’s criteria of suspicion in singles, although Tomas Berdych and Lukas Rosol took two minutes beyond seven hours to defeat Stan Wawrinka and Marco Chiudinelli in a Davis Cup doubles tie in 2013.
Several players have been in five-hour-plus struggles, including Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Ivo Karlovic, Radek Stepanek, Gilles Müller, Marin Cilic, Sam Querrey – and Murray himself.
Nobody is saying these players used banned substances; Djokovic, Murray and Becker agree on that. But one thing is indisputable: the crusader and the diplomat are still a long way apart on this important issue. Both of them cannot be right.
Then, when the clouds looked as if they were clearing, the International Tennis Federation announced late on Tuesday afternoon that an umpire had been banned for 10 years for failing to declare a previous sanction. Whatever next?
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