Men’s tennis at a crossroads?

Novak Djokovic became the No. 1-ranked tennis player for the first time at Wimbledon in 2011. He just locked up the No. 1 ranking for the third time in four years at the Barclay’s ATP World Tour Finals in London.

Novak Djokovic became the No. 1-ranked tennis player for the first time at Wimbledon in 2011. He just locked up the No. 1 ranking for the third time in four years at the Barclay’s ATP World Tour Finals in London.

Had an interesting conversation with a saleswoman the other day regarding watches. I remarked that it’s intriguing that so many watch manufacturers have tennis players for pitch men – and women. You don’t see as many NFL players representing watches.

That might seem counterintuitive since tennis isn’t played against a clock – although it certainly records the time of each match, whereas football is played in four 15-minute intervals, albeit with lots of timeouts and a halftime. Shouldn’t Peyton Manning be the spokesman for Piaget?

But a watch – a gift of time – is a classy thing, she said. Tennis players are classy, she added. By implication, football players are not.

It’s always dangerous to generalize, of course, but there is some truth in what she said, as I myself have pointed out in this blog. Tennis has prescribed rules for deportment and an intimate, relatively quieter setting – though it can get pretty loud – that underscores infractions. When Novak Djokovic sarcastically applauded the crowd as it applauded his double-fault in a semifinal against Kei Nishikori at the Barclay’s ATP World Tour Finals in London Nov. 15, he was quick to blame himself for letting the crowd get to him and losing his concentration.

You think a football player’s going to apologize for letting the crowd get to him? You think a football crowd’s going to limit itself to cheering for the opposition’s mistakes? The language alone at football games is among the most scurrilous you’ll ever hear. It peppers my forthcoming novel “The Penalty for Holding,” in which New York Templars backup quarterback-turned-breakout star Quinn Novak remembers “the vomit of vulgarity” strewn at him and his teammates as he considers their flaws.

Been a while since we talked about Nole and company, though. When last we left him and the rest of the Big Four – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray – they were at a crossroads at the US Open with Kei and winner Marin Cilic knocking on the door of the top players and Stan the Man Wawrinka having made his presence known with an Australian Open win in January. Such has been the seriousness of the domestic abuse scandal in the NFL and college ball and hazing at the high school level that men’s tennis, the comparatively well-behaved child, has taken a back seat on my blog this fall.

But that doesn’t mean the players have been idle – on or off the court. Nole and wife Jelena Ristic welcomed their “angel baby” Stefan Oct. 21 in Nice near their Monte Carlo home. (“Angel baby” – Nole has such a wonderful way with his tweets, in which he was quick to say how proud he was of his wife, since, let’s face it, it’s the woman who has to serve for that match.) Despite all the worries about what fatherhood would do to Nole’s game, he went on to win the China Open in Beijing for the fifth time before baby Stefan’s arrival and, since his birth, has taken the Paris Masters and will face Fed in the ATP Finals final in London Nov. 16 to close out the season in the battle of tennis daddys. Nole’s only loss this fall came against Fed in the Shanghai Rolex Masters semis, and Fed had to be perfect to beat him. No surprise. We’re in the indoor season, and Nole is one of the greatest indoor players – hell, one of the greatest players period. When he’s hot, he’s hot. Plus, never underestimate the pride a father puts into his work when he knows he has a little fella at home who’ll someday be looking up to him.

Speaking of daddys on tour, you have to hand it to Fed. The guy is 33 with two sets of twins and is back at No. 2 challenging for No. 1. (That will have to wait until next year. Nole locked up the No. 1 ranking for the third time in four years with a win against Tomas Berdych Nov. 14.) It’s too bad that some Federinas and members of the media can’t find it in their hearts to make room for Nole, because the two have an engaging rivalry. It may lack the brutal beauty of Rafanole, but it has its moments, as we saw at Wimbledon this year.

And it will have to do, because Rafa’s out, having undergone a successful appendectomy. Then he'll finally be getting treatment (via stem cells) for the back injury he sustained inthe Aussie Open final against Stan. We need him back, and we need Andy back. Not that he’s gone anywhere, except perhaps mentally. Fed actually let him win a game in his 6-0,6-1 drubbing of him in London. Is this the same young man who galvanized us with Olympic gold and Wimbledon and U.S. Open wins? And is the current sorry state of his game the effect of his back surgery last year, a coaching change (Andy replaced Ivan Lendl with Amélie Mauresmo) or something else?

In New York Times’ tennis columnist Christopher Clarey’s Nov. 15 piece about Nole wrapping up the No. 1 ranking, he notes that former No. 1 players Boris Becker (Nole’s coach), John McEnroe, Carlos Moya and Mats Wilander were on the court to help him celebrate. But that wasn’t the only reason they were on hand. They’re members of a new advisory board put together by ATP chief Chris Kermode to look at life after the Big Four.

Given Rafa’s injuries and Andy’s game at a crossroads, tennis may be wise to do so.