Djokovic rules supreme, but what about the rules we all need?
Updated: Jun 16
Over the last fortnight tennis players in Paris have battled for world supremacy as have Australian and Indian cricketers across the English Channel.
As compelling as their contests have been, there has been one image that, forgive the pun, has saturated my mind in recent days: the destroyed dam in Ukraine. It has literally and figuratively unleashed another torrent of misery on a blighted and besieged country. Unlike the Dambuster flying raids of World War 2 that advanced the course of liberty, the Russian attack has reinforced the tyranny of Russia’s invasion of arguably the world’s most luckless nation of the last one hundred years.
Growing up in Tasmania in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s dams were never far from the centre of the island State’s focus. As a State whose energy supply was entirely generated by hydro power the number of dams the island needed, where they were to be built and the environmental damage their construction would create political firestorms of national and international significance, culminating in the High Court’s decision of July 1983 to uphold national legislation to prevent the construction of a dam on the Franklin River in the island’s south-west wilderness.
A dam is a physical barrier designed to preserve and control water levels. They are restraints on their immediate environment. When they weaken, leak and/ or overflow great damage can ensue.
Right now, too many social and cultural dams are weakening and their overflow is telling.
Relying on sportsmanship has been a structural imperative to ensure the civility of the contest. At the French Open Ukraine’s Elena Svitolina refused to shake hands when Belarussian player Arna Sabalenka defeated her in a quarter-final. Sabalenka’s first round opponent, another Ukrainian, also refused to shake Sabalenka’s hand at the end of their match. Sabalenka went to Paris to play tennis, yet every day seemed to be held personally responsible for her nation’s support of President Putin. If everything political becomes personal, then there is not much room left for seemly discourse or sport.
Novak Djokovic created political tensions of his own by signing a television camera with a message supporting Serbian control of Kosovo. Djokovic’s detractors would argue that he injected this element of controversy to create the dissent that drives his desire to succeed.
The Bill to provide for the creation of an Aboriginal Voice to Australia’s Parliament is about to pass through the national parliament, paving the way for a constitutional referendum in October. Ironically, there are signs that the forthcoming debate about “the Voice” will fracture the restraint and tolerance that is central to discussion within a democracy.
Pro-voice opinions are being expressed with increasingly shrill righteousness by sporting and professional associations and corporations. The great dam like test of a democracy is Voltaire’s observation that “I utterly disagree with what you say, but defend to the death your right to say it.” Worryingly, there seems to be less defending to the death, but more character assassination of those with contrary opinions.
Have you noticed how every politician who have recently retired comment on how the brutality of the contest has taken over from a contest of ideas?
The brutality of undemocratic processes has been reinforced by the imprisonment of former Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, by his country’s military junta fearing his growing popularity.
Arguably, the greatest dam like protection of individual liberties Western democracies has been the presumption of innocence that sits alongside the rule of law and an independent court system. Whether it be allegations of rape, allegations of systemic racism in football clubs or the bringing of another indictment against a former President, one senses that these protections are under siege.
A disconcerting series of events seems to regularly occur.
First there is a media rush to judgement replete with prejudicial commentary, then there is equally inappropriate comment from politicians and then, finally and inevitably, suspicion about the independence and integrity of judicial personnel and processes. In the end, an agonising lack of resolution. Both accused and accuser convince themselves that they have been wronged. There is no wisdom in this modern rush to judgement, let alone a Solomon.
When the pursuit of justice becomes a personal popularity contest for vindication, rather than an objective search for truth based on principles protecting all involved, cracks in the public’s confidence in our justice system will appear.
Speaking of principles, am I too naïve to suggest that in recent times it seems harder to maintain that they exist, dam like, to remind us of accountability and the need for integrity? Avowed supporters of a Republic in Australia and New Zealand accept grace and favour positions of the monarchy, a Governorship of Victoria for Professor Margaret Gardner, and a Damehood for New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, without a scintilla of concern.
Boris Johnson, the former English Prime Minister- and there are suddenly many of them- is held to account by his nation’s Parliament for breaches of parliamentary conduct. Rather than serve a ten day suspension and contest a possible by-election, he attacks the investigation and quits the parliament. Those that make most noise often seem most reluctant to face the music. The Johnson Prime Ministership- “much hairdo about nothing”?
The dam like assurance that we could have a definite notion of heroism has been rattled in Australia with a judge finding that Victoria Cross winner Ben Roberts-Smith was, on the civil standard of proof being the balance of probabilities, guilty of killing unarmed Afghans. What did F. Scott Fitzgerald observe? “Show me a hero and I will show you a tragedy.” Wars claim their casualties long after the fighting ceases. Has anyone been able build an explanation of dam like certainty about the rules of combat?
Many would argue that the economic prosperity of the West has been built on the emergence of a growing middle class. Recent generations have been able to build dams of stronger economic foundations to provide for the next. Cracks are appearing in this cherished certainty. A pincer movement of inflation and increasing interest rates have left a generation in Australia facing the prospect of a life without home ownership.
For those with assets, governments continue to increase their take of private wealth as they seek to pay for defence, aged care, national disability schemes et al. The enervating question of “will I have enough to live on?” is increasingly being asked by too many fearing that they do not have a reservoir of financial security.
What distractions did Paris provide us?
For a brief shining moment, the dam filled up with Australian promise in the Men’s Draw- remember our last Australian Men’s champion in Paris was Rod Laver in 1969- when four players advanced to the second round for the first time since 2000; however only Thanasi Kokkinakis made it to the third and then no further. In the Women’s Draw-remember Australia has only had two female champions in the last 50 years-Margaret Court in 1973 and Ash Barty in 2019-we were represented only by two-one a qualifier and one a wildcard, with Storm Hunter bowing out in the second round.
The Women’s Draw was typically capricious in its dénouement. Elena Rybakina was forced to withdraw with a viral illness. Of the 8 quarter-finalists 5 were unseeded. One of them, Karolina Muchova, progressed to the final against expected finalist and top seed, Iga Swiatek. Swiatek won her third title in four years defeating a spirited Muchova in a three set final, becoming the first female player to do so since Justine Henin-Hardenne in 2003, 2005-2006. In the Women’s Doubles the victory of the Chinese and Taiwanese pairing of Wang Xinyu and Hsieh Su-wei offered hope that not all is fractious between the two nations.
The crème de la crème rose to the top in the Men’s Draw. The four semi-finalists were seeded 1,3,4 and 22. No. 2 seed Daniil Medvedev confirmed his mercurial abilities by losing in the first round and commenting afterwards that he was glad to be leaving a tournament where “my mouth is always filled with red clay.” Will grass be more to his taste at Wimbledon?
The Men’s semi-finalists comprised the last of the glorious trinity vs Gen Next. Who blinked? Well Carlos Alcaraz might not have blinked, but he cramped badly after he and Djokovic had split the first two sets. Alcaraz blamed nerves for his physical distress. Champions need to be made of sterner stuff. Ruud advanced to the final with an emphatic defeat of Zverev.
At the end of 2020, Federer and Nadal appropriately enough had 20 Grand Slam titles each. Nadal had 22 by the end of 2022.
Now they have been eclipsed with Djokovic claiming his 23rd title in 2023. Three sets were all that were needed for Djokovic to defeat Ruud who lost his third successive Grand Slam final.
So, what next for Djokovic? His 23 Grand Slam titles comprise 10 Australian, 3 French, 7 Wimbledon and 3 US Opens and equal Serena Williams’ Open era tally. Who would bet against him adding one more for 24 at Wimbledon to equal Margaret Court’s all-time record? Another victory at Wimbledon would see him move past Sampras’ seven titles and join Federer on eight. And then a Grand Slam would beckon in New York with a chance to claim a 25th title and occupy historical waters all his own.
Djokovic can now claim he is the most exceptional male player of all time. How long he will reign over the tennis world is a tantalising question. For we mere mortals the rules that provide our daily philosophical, moral and democratic certainties and victories must endure.