NEW YORK — They booed Novak Djokovic the other night. Because he had an injured left shoulder. He tried to play his fourth-round match of the U.S. Open against Stan Wawrinka, made it into the third set and then quit, or retired as it’s officially designated.
The No. 1 seed, the defending champion, is knocked out of the tournament not by his opponent but by his own body, by an injury he did his best to overcome, and the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium is angry. How dare Novak withdraw? The New York Post headline was “Djoker throws in towel.”
Those people in the stands paid big money. This isn’t a sissy sport like football or hockey. This is tennis. You play until they carry you off.
It was a tough few hours for the Open and its highest ranked players.
Just before 11 p.m. Sunday, the Djokovic-Wawrinka match came to an awkward conclusion (Wawrinka won the first two sets and led in the third).
Then just before 2 p.m. Monday, Naomi Osaka, also a defending champion, top-ranked and top-seeded, was beaten, 7-5, 6-4, by Belinda Bencic.
Who is from Switzerland, as is Wawrinka (and Roger Federer). And who has been derailed by injuries, as Djokovic is now, a situation all too frequent in tennis, where the players start very young (6 or 7 years old), practice constantly and travel the world with no chance to take time off.
When you’re just starting out as a pro, you need the points to move up in the rankings. Once you move up and become prominent, a Djokovic or Serena Williams — who won Sunday even though she has a twisted ankle — you continue pushing yourself because of requests from tournaments or demands of endorsements.
It was Serena’s older sister, Venus, who after losing a match one year at Wimbledon was asked if she were hurt. Her reply: “If you’re hurt you don’t play, and if you play you’re not hurt.”
A wonderful attitude and approach. Yet, as in Djokovic’s case, when there is a problem, do you try or do you just pull out?
If you thought the reaction was negative when he finally walked off the court, you could imagine what it might have been if he had never walked on the court.
The sporting public isn’t exactly the most tolerant of groups.
Not too long ago, Djokovic had an elbow problem he finally consented to correct with surgery early in 2018, which worked splendidly, the Djoker rising from No. 22 to No. 1. Now the back. And Osaka has a bothersome left knee on which she wears a black pressure sleeve.
Kevin Anderson of South Africa, a finalist in both the 2017 U.S. Open and 2018 Wimbledon, pulled out of this year’s Open just before the first shot was hit because of a right knee injury.
Roger Federer needed knee surgery in early 2016 and then skipped the French Open for three years, as much to take a break before Wimbledon as to avoid playing on the surface he likes least, the red clay at Roland Garros.
Osaka said she hurt her knee during the tournament at Cincinnati, which is one of the warmup events for the Open. ”It’s getting better,” she said after the fourth-round loss to Bencic. “I don’t want to say that’s the reason I lost, because I obviously played three matches before this. Yeah, I just needed to take a painkiller.”
Bencic knows all about pain, mental and physical. Five years ago, 2014, at age 17 she became the youngest woman into the Open quarterfinals since Martina Hingis in 1997, who would win the championship that year.
But a back problem and wrist surgery stopped Bencic’s rise for awhile. Now, healthy and eager, she has returned. As Osaka will verify: she’s 0-3 overall against Bencic, including the defeat Monday.
“Just being aggressive,” said Osaka when asked for an explanation. “I know that’s a really blunt, short answer, but that’s honestly ail I can think of.”
What Bencic, now 23, thought was this match against Osaka felt different than the other two because of the setting, Ashe Stadium — with a covered roof because of occasional rain — and the significance, a major tournament.
“I don’t have the biggest power,” said Bencic, “don’t have the most winners or the most aces, But I think I can read the opponent’s game well. In the top 50 players, it’s not about who can hit a better backhand or forehand. It’s definitely about the mentality.”
And about not getting injured.