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Courier Disputes McEnroe on Djokovic Damage

By Richard Pagliaro

Friends and former teammates John McEnroe and Jim Courier are on opposite sides of the net when it comes to Novak Djokovic and the damage done.

Hall of Famer McEnroe asserts Djokovic's default from the US Open fourth round is a permanent tattoo that will brand the world No. 1 as "the bad guy the rest of his career."

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Fellow former No. 1 Courier isn’t buying McEnroe’s doom-and-gloom forecast.

In a conference call with the media to promote Tennis Channel's Roland Garros coverage beginning Sunday, September 27th, at 5 a.m. Eastern time, TC analyst Courier said intent and perspective matter—and Djokovic’s actions show his strike that hit a lineswoman in the throat was accidental.

“I think intent matters. Novak clearly had no intention of harming anyone with the ball that unfortunately hit the lines woman in the throat,” Courier said. “It was an accident. It's one that he's deeply sorry for.

“I don't think it should be necessarily this great shadow that makes him all of a sudden go from a good guy to a bad guy. That's not the way that I see it, with all respect to John and his views. John would know more about being the bad guy than most of us. He carried that pretty well.”

The world No. 1 made ignominious history as the first top seed in the 140-year history of the tournament to be booted out of the Open in the fourth round vs. Pablo Carreno Busta.

Trailing 5-6 in the opening set, Djokovic turned and hit a ball in frustration at the back wall after dropping serve. The shot inadvertently struck a lineswoman in the throat immediately knocking her to the Arthur Ashe Stadium court.

Two-time Roland Garros champion Courier says the moment was magnified by the major spotlight and argues the larger ramifications aren’t about Djokovic’s reputation—because the 17-time Grand Slam champion has contributed good to the game as well—they’re about the record book.

Will hitting himself out of a Grand Slam he was an overwhelming favorite to win ultimately hurt Djokovic in the race to surpass Roger Federer’s record of 20 Grand Slam championships?

“We have to take the full body of work. Novak has done a lot of good on the court as well as off the court,” Courier said. “Because he's so high profile, mistakes are magnified. This is one that will certainly. Because he was defaulted in a major, that he was going to win most likely, that's why I think it will travel with him more so than, say, if it happened in Monte-Carlo where it would be, It's an accident, what a shame he hurt the person a little bit and thankfully she's okay.

“I think the significance of the location and what it might do to the historical view on his record, he probably would have one more major had he not done that, that's why it's a bit of a shadow.”

Twenty-eight years ago, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, John McEnroe, and Pete Sampras formed the famed American "Dream Team" that captured the 1992 Davis Cup and inspired devotees—including a scrawny 10-year-old kid named Andy Roddick, who watched the final from the cheap seats—to hit courts all over the nation in droves.

Courier and McEnroe—former teammates, long-time friends and rivals on the senior circuit—don’t see eye-to-eye on the impact of disqualification on Djokovic’s reputation.

McEnroe says some fans and media will view Djokovic as “the bad guy” for the rest of his career and suggests the 33-year-old Serbian adopt the villain role as a source of emotional energy.

“Now whether he likes it or not he’s gonna be the bad guy the rest of his career. It’s gonna be interesting to see how he handles it,” McEnroe said of Djokovic. "If he embraces that role I think he could recover. He’s got a lot of things going, but this is obviously a stain he’s not gonna be able to erase whether he likes it or not.”

Courier counters its shortsighted to make character conclusions based on one incident.

All three Grand Slam champions—Courier, Djokovic and McEnroe—were intensely emotional players at their best. Courier asserts emotional intensity is the fire that fuels Djokovic’s blazing desire, but cautions he must control it so it doesn’t consume him.

“For me, it's not a reflection on his character,” Courier said. “I've said it publicly, I will say it again, if Novak zombied out there, which we saw for a couple of years where he tried to mute his emotions, and that wasn't him, it's not in his DNA, he needs to be a fiery player, an emotional player for better or worse on the court.

“That's when he plays his best tennis. That's who he is. Obviously we hope and he hopes more than anyone he won't have an incident like this the rest of his career.”

Djokovic was apologetic for his actions in the aftermath of his default, but also admitted he can’t guarantee he won’t erupt again in the future.

The mercurial McEnroe was famously defaulted from his 1990 Australian Open fourth-round match while leading Mikael Pernfors and fined $6,500 after an outburst of bad behavior including smashing a racquet and unleashing a torrent of abuse at umpire Gerry Armstrong.

McEnroe said among the stunning aspects of Djokovic’s “boneheaded” implosion were the fact he blew his fuse so quickly and blew off the mandatory post-match press conference rather than explaining himself.

"I’m just amazed, amazed, he did something as boneheaded as that in situation when he was the overwhelming favorite," McEnroe said. "So what if he lost his serve to Carreno Busta? It's really inexplicable. What we’re trying to do is understand it.

"I don’t understand why he didn’t go to press either. I gotta say you gotta man up there. That’s dumb. It made no sense to me because normally in the past I’ve seen him take responsibility when he’s blown it. "In this case it just makes it even worse that he didn't show up. So what if he apologized on Twitter on the way to the plane. It’s just not good enough."

Photo credit: Mike Lawrence/USTA/US Open Facebook