August 29, 2018
Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic are through to the second round of the US Open – though not without incident.
For Federer the task on court was more straightforward than for Novak, who dropped a set and had to see the tournament cardiologist in oppressive heat and humidity.
Although Roger was broken as he tried to close out his match against Yoshihito Nishioka, he was still a comfortable 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 winner.
Then the fun and games really began as Federer made a throwaway remark about his perfect record in opening matches at Flushing Meadows.
‘I’m happy I never stumbled at the first hurdle. Almost time to retire but not yet.’
Cue mayhem in New York and rumours that Roger, 37, was about to announce his retirement at last.
Federer had to go to great lengths to explain that he had simply been joking. That he could in theory retire to protect that unblemished first-round record of eighteen successive wins. But that he wasn’t ready to call it quits yet.
Repeat. No retirement.
Oh, the perils of using spontaneous humour! Novak had a similar experience as he explained the unique intimacy of a naked ice bath alongside his opponent, Marton Fucsovics mid-match.
The players had been granted an extreme heat break at the end of the third set and chose to spend those ten precious minutes in the same way.
Novak explained. ‘It was a quite magnificent feeling I must say to be naked in the ice bath next to the guy you are still battling with the match not finished.’
You could see exactly what he meant. That strange, private moment between sporting rivals whose clash was still in the balance. It was funny. It was honest.
But after he spoke those words in the post-match interview on court, the camera panned across to Novak’s wife, Jelena in the crowd.
And the look on her face was one of pure shock and grim-faced bemusement.
It was as if she had scarcely trusted her ears and was thinking: ‘Did my husband just say it was a magnificent feeling to be naked with another man? Did he just say that for the entire world to hear?’
Her temporary confusion (or was it borderline horror?) made the moment even more hilarious.
No doubt she understood the context before long. She knows the peculiarly gladiatorial nature of tennis. So she must have understood what Novak really meant in the end.
The bizarre suspension of hostilities, the warriors stripped bare, quite literally, before resuming battle. What is not magnificent about that in terms of pure sporting theatre?
Thing is, Roger and Novak were speaking with conscious comic effect. And yet they weren’t just joking.
Of course it is nearly time for Roger to retire.
Does anyone seriously think Federer will play more than one US Open after this? Or at the very most two?
And of course it felt magnificent for Djokovic to find that ice-bath relief from the crushing New York heat and share that simple, brutal pleasure with a fellow tennis warrior.
Doesn’t mean there was anything homoerotic about it. Nothing for Jelena to worry about, despite her initially-perplexed expression.
But that’s the trouble with humour. It often relies on more than a hint of reality. Then suddenly everyone is looking for meanings that arent there.
The tennis? Roger rarely looked troubled, benefiting once more from being put on the cooler, evening schedule.
By contrast Novak looked in serious trouble after he lost the second set and fell behind 2-4 in the third.
Then he won ten games in a row to book his place in the next round, a 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-0 win to savour.
There will be even more drama ahead. More comedy as well, if day 2 at the US Open was anything to go by.