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November 2017


The last time he’d talked to Novak, three weeks ago, he’d laughed when Andy mentioned the possibility of a jail sentence. He’d been holed up in Belgrade still, out on bail and staying in a house rented under an assumed name to avoid the flocks of reporters, casually dismissive of the outcome.

 

Is all lies, Andy,’ he’d insisted over the crackly long-distance connection, ‘all circumstantial and a stupid farce. It will all be fine just in time for me to make the Finals, yes? You better be ready to practice with me all hours because I am getting fat, sitting here watching cartoons. This will be worst off-season ever with all the catch up training but hey, six months off work for Roger. I beat you all when I get back you know?’

 

Neither of them acknowledged the fragile edge to the words, or the way Novak kept running out of breezy small talk, leaving wide silences in the conversation that Andy struggled to fill. He’d offered up the latest tour gossip, asked after Pierre and what Belgrade was like in the autumn, even though Novak’s told him a hundred times before. It was easier to rerun old conversations, give Novak the space to be distracted.

 

And it kept them away from more dangerous ground – such as the real reasons why Novak was hiding in a nondescript house too afraid to go outside to practice. Andy’s been following the Google alerts, even if Novak pretends not to take it seriously; he’s seen the blurry videos of eggs thrown, the angry fans getting in Novak’s face when he tried to go for a run. Seen photographs of the charred ruin that was the front door at Novak’s parents’ house, where he’d been staying before someone passing had thrown a Molotov cocktail.

 

Serbia had defended Novak vehemently for the first few weeks but as the case dragged on, evidence splashed across increasingly-vicious newspaper headlines, belief ebbed away until it turned to anger. Novak had been held up as the shining example to a battered country, their prodigal son. General sentiment now, spilling out in the tweets Andy can’t stop himself running through Google translate, is that he deserves every scrap of punishment on offer for throwing that away.

 

But five years.

 

They’d joked in August, Andy remembers, before the tone of the press coverage soured and Novak’s laugh still sounded genuine, about Sharapova and bans that’d be over before anyone noticed them in the first place. Called it an enforced vacation, teasing at how Novak was getting to catch up on Westworld, finally.

 

Five years isn’t a nothing ban; it’s career-ending. They’re both thirty, and coming back after that long away would be difficult at twenty-five, creeping toward impossible with every extra year.

 

Except, Andy realises with a jolt, Novak won’t be able to come back ever. He’s going to spend five years locked in a Serbian jail, in a country where everyone knows his face and thinks they know what he’s thrown away. Practising his serve isn’t going to rank highly on the list of priorities.

.

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