Pantomime is cancelled but at least we’ve got Owen Farrell and Novak Djokovic

Little evidence that old ways will be mended after duo’s misdemeanours

Thursday, 10th September 2020, 7:30 am
Updated Thursday, 10th September 2020, 2:43 pm
Novak Djokovic reacts after inadvertently hitting a line judge with a ball at the US Open. Picture: Seth Wenig/AP
Novak Djokovic reacts after inadvertently hitting a line judge with a ball at the US Open. Picture: Seth Wenig/AP

Pantomime is largely cancelled this year but in sport two of the biggest, baddest panto villains have been carrying on regardless.

That Owen Farrell and Novak Djokovic pressed the self-destruct button to blast out of their respective competitions within 24 hours of each other makes you wonder if they have image consultants or maybe anti-image consultants with offices fitted with alerts so that whenever a rival in the bogeyman stakes does something shocking, their man does not get left behind.

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“Boss, there’s something you need to see. It’s Farrell, the England rugby guy. Have a look …

Owen Farrell of Saracens leaves the field after being sent off against Wasps. Picture: Clive Rose/Getty Images

“Bloody hell! Can you do that in his sport? Sneak up on someone and smash an arm in his face? Are you sure this is film from a rugby match? It looks more like CCTV footage of a brawl that’s spilled out of a pub.”

“I know, boss, and I think we’re just going to have to accept that Novak cannot top this – for now, at least. He’s going to walk the US Open. With no fans allowed he won’t be jeered. Tennis is still – I’ve checked – a non-contact sport. What can possibly go wrong? … ”

Now I’m almost certain that no such conversation took place but nevertheless the Red Rose captain and tennis’ world No 1 have taken their notoriety to new levels.

Both of the victims got it in the neck. Wasps’ Charlie Atkinson was clotheslined by Farrell of Saracens, a club not in need of any more bad press, while line judge Laura Clark was hit by a ball fired to the back of the court in frustration by the 17-times Grand Slam champion.

Following banishment of Farrell and Djokovic, by red card and default, profuse apologies were offered, but not much in the way of evidence that old ways will be mended.

Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall, asked if the fly-half needed to improve his tackling, because there are enough similar hits around to make up X-rated YouTube compilations, chose to talk up a Farrell disciplinary record he claimed was “pretty good”.

Old footage soon emerged of Djokovic reacting angrily at a post-match press conference to being quizzed about his flash of temper, also not a first. He became hostile towards his questioner and tried to belittle him when he realised the room had a good number of guffawing fanboys in it.

“So I’m the only player that gets frustrated?” the Serb asked. No, he’s not, as Nick Kyrgios was quick to point out in a tweet: “Accidentally hitting the ball-kid in the throat – how many years would I be banned for? 5? 10? 20?”

The last thing Farrell and Djokovic will want is someone practising weekend psychology on them, so here goes: they are the baddest at being bad, these two, and the nearest any sport can offer right now to the old-days wrestler most likely to be clobbered with a granny’s umbrella, but only one of them wants to stay bad.

Djokovic desperately wants to be loved. To be loved as much as Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. He’s almost won as many Slams as these two and so doesn’t understand why he isn’t. He’s tried everything. At Wimbledon once he rode in a smelly Underground train with the SW19-bound fans. His victory celebration is to make like he’s giving the stands his heart, a pretend act of self-disembowelment which becomes more unctuously gruesome every time.

He refuses to accept that fans can have their favourites, based not just on how chillingly brilliant a player might be but also involving fluttery, random preferences which are that more difficult to compute if you’re Djokovic, a chillingly brilliant player for sure but also sport’s most hardwired robot. So sometimes he blows a fuse. On this occasion the master of the on-court psyche-out turned on himself. Maybe, with no Federer or Nadal around, this Slam was looking too easy. The man may yearn to be showered with rose petals from an adoring audience but maybe he cannot function without crackling tension all around him and that grudging applause for his stupendous backhand drives.

This will be no consolation to Djokovic but it’s possible to love tennis, to not love him outright, but to love that sometimes instead of a ball he will thwack a grenade. He’s great theatre, or rather he’s great panto, though obviously no one should end up getting hurt because of his actions.

Mats Wilander, now a coach, is forever telling his charges to stop doing what Djokovic did – “to break the habit for this exact reason, they’ll eventually hit someone and it won’t be good.”

It isn’t good for rugby that Farrell did what he did – you can imagine parents of boys about to resume playing for their clubs or schools being extremely nervous if that “tackle” is the kind of example being offered by an international skipper.

Farrell, who has been banned for five games, was the first player I noticed who would stick a shoulder in the path of an opponent chasing a kick, a snide trick which might have been the first glimpse of rugby adapting football’s “professional fouls” to its own ends.

His badness is different from that of Djokovic. He’s not having a fight with himself in which the other half wants to be seen as good and loveable. In such a tough-guy world as he inhabits, bad is good and love is for losers. But if he continues to behave thuggishly on the rugby field he may need the assistance of a real psychologist. Either that or he goes back to grade one and learns how to tackle properly, which for an elite player would be quite a comedown.

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