At the US Open, Jennifer Capriati has broken down in tears, Rafa Nadal has fainted and Serena has bristled and glared. At Wimbledon, a British and an American reporter got into a fight. And Jeff Tarango’s wife slapped an ump. Andy Murray cried in Melbourne.
And in Seville, after the US lost the final to Spain, the team was disconsolate.
But today, simply put, there was a press conference like none of the tens of thousands I’ve ever attended over the years.
In the Magic Box interview room there was little magic to contain the sorrow of a Serbian team that suffered a devastating loss in the Davis Cup quarterfinals to Russia, 10-8 in the third-set tiebreak. Novak Djokovic, who just four short months ago had felt the ecstasy of his classic victory over Roger Federer, now was despondent. Such are the emotions of sports. Heads were bowed, tears flowed. The band of Serbian brothers was in pain. This was the last event for veteran Janko Tipsarevic, and the end of an era.
To make matters worse, it seemed that most every fellow and fan in town had been hoping that Serbia would get through to the finals, so Novak’s team would take on the home-standing Spaniards, led by Señor Rafa. But Russian men’s tennis has surprised us lately. For years it was Russian women who commanded the spotlight. Yet this summer Marat Safin got into the Hall of Fame and US Open finalist, No. 5 Daniil Medvedev, soared. Now there is talk of three Russians being in the top ten.
Here at the Davis Cup, after Medvedev pulled out, it was all on the shoulders of No. 17 Karen Khachanov and Andrey Rublev, who’s been dealing with a bad back and severe depression. The two lean, powerful twenty-somethings teamed up in the decisive doubles match against two wily Serbs – Djokovic, 32, and Viktor Troicki, 33. In the third set tiebreak all seemed lost for the Russians, as player of the decade Djokovic and Troicki had three match points.
But at crunch time the nervous Troicki couldn’t deliver. In the tiebreak he would suffer five volley errors and, when a Serbian return of serve floated wide, all was lost, as the small nation that won the Davis Cup in 2010 went down 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (8) in an epic battle.
“It hurts, it hurts us really badly,” said No. 2 Djokovic. “The season is done…This match was a roller coaster with a lot of turnarounds and [it was] very, very emotional, very tense…I’m exhausted and just ready to have a holiday.”
But it was Troicki who was truly gutted. He wept, then bravely gathered himself and confided, “I probably feel the worst ever. I never experienced such a moment in my career, in my life. I let my team down, and I apologize to them. We were up in the tiebreak. We had chances to finish it…I messed up in the crucial moments. God gave me once [a chance] to be the hero, maybe to win the Davis Cup in the deciding rubber. Now he took it away…At the end there was one point that decided it. And I’m really, really disappointed in myself that I couldn’t hold my focus till the end and finish.”
Serbia’s Captain, Nenad Zimonjic, a former player beloved in Serbia, poignantly put the pain in perspective. “Unfortunately, one point decided here…They gave everything they had, but this is how the sport is. The way I approached playing for the country is…whatever your team needs, you do it to your best. And they gave everything today…You win as a team and you lose as a team. It doesn’t matter if somebody wins two matches and you end up losing the match. The main thing is that everybody here did their part…That’s all you can say. It was very emotional because it’s Janko’s last (tearing up)…Sorry.”
Zimonjic calmed himself and continued, explaining that the four senior players on the Serbian squad are “our golden generation…and I see it as an end because it’s Janko’s last match…Your dream may be to go all the way and to celebrate with a victory, but sometimes it doesn’t happen.
“But everybody,” said Nenad, “knows how much we care about each other, how much we love each other, and this is what got us here. So I want to thank all of them…The energy, the friendship, the team got the most out of all of us. I was happy to be part of it as a player…[but] as their friend the most, and now as a captain.”
The press room went silent. One felt the Serbians’ agony. Then a wise journalist intervened and asked a favor of the usually crusty writers. “Can I just ask the press to clap the Serbians for the effort they made?” Applause and emotion flowed. It was a beautiful, very human moment.
The retiring Janko Tipsarevic then spoke up and referred to a question I’d asked him yesterday. He said a journalist “asked me, ‘What is the one thing that you can pull out from all these 20 years?’ And I said it is not the victories or the losses…[it] is that this beautiful sport makes you f–king tough.
“This emotion [now] after a day like this that you want to commit suicide…[when you] go against the wind, these emotions are the one thing that I can draw from after all these 20 years I have been playing. A few of the guys apologized to me. I don’t accept these apologies because none of them let me down over these 20 years.”
Looking at Troicki, he told him, “I disagree with you, Viktor, [when you said] that God took away this from you. You will never have this emotion that you had because you brought us to this last point.
“As for the team, everybody knows that they are like my brothers and I will [always] be with the team and I thank them all for being with me on this journey.”
I left the press room shaking. In some odd way, a sporting loss had never felt so wondrous.