Shame what's happened to Novak Djokovic

The big question is: Did he or didn't he?

The even bigger question is: Will Novak Djokovic ever be the same again?

Let's take the smaller question first: Did Djokovic show up to play in the Paris Indoors Masters 1000 (from which he withdrew because of an ailing shoulder before his quarterfinal match versus Jo-Wilfried Tsonga) only to make sure he gets his share of the ATP's year-end bonus pool? Had Djokovic skipped Paris, he would have become ineligible for a share, because a player who misses two consecutive Masters events forfeits the dough. (Djokovic missed the previous Masters, Shanghai, a few weeks ago.)

Given Djokovic's ranking and accomplishments, the incentive-based payout amounted to $1.6 million USD, which isn't exactly chump change -- even for the man who won three Grand Slam events and posted a 6-0 record against Rafael Nadal this year. And the year is not over.

Even if Djokovic does not play the ATP World Tour championships in a few weeks, he's already blasted his way into the history books by putting together one of the best years, or three-quarters of a year, in history.

Djokovic's final quarter has been ruined by, in order: a back injury that caused him to miss the entire Asian tour; and then the recurrence of a shoulder injury (originally noticed way back in August, when it forced Djokovic to surrender the Cincinnati Masters final to Andy Murray) that contributed to his unexpected loss to Kei Nishikori last week in Basel.

All that helps explain why the gossip in Paris and elsewhere is that Djokovic entered the event only to make sure that that big check with his name on it gets to be deposited to the right account. On the surface, it seems plausible, and I'd buy it if Djokovic had gone out, played a mediocre set against Ivan Dodig in his first match in Paris, and then withdrawn -- citing his injury.

Instead, Djokovic mastered Dodig and then endured a three-setter against his countryman and sometimes wingman Viktor Troicki. Djokovic lost the first set in that one but mounted a fight-back that ended in a win. Less than 24 hours later, he announced his withdrawal.

I can't imagine that Djokovic would have played Russian roulette with his career by competing in Paris any longer than he needed if he was just trying to qualify for his dough. Besides, he could have helped his buddy Troicki significantly by getting out of his way. So I've got to believe that although he's happy to collect the bonus pool, Djokovic did his level best to work through his aches and pains to win.

As Djokovic told the media: "I have to put my health first and withdraw even though my urges as a professional player are making me want to play until the last drop of energy."

I also think that these days Novak loves being Djokovic. (Hey, wouldn't you, in his shoes?) He's trying to get to the finish line as fully cloaked in honor and adulation as possible. Which is why he rather grandly told the disappointed Parisian crowd: "I am very sorry for all of you who bought tickets and wanted to come and watch me play."

Well, the Parisians will survive. But will Djokovic? That's the larger question.

We don't know just how severe his injury is. He seems to suggest that what he needs mostly is rest: "My body is aching for recovery." But he certainly has pushed the envelope these past few weeks, trying to play through his shoulder troubles, trying to finish out the year in some semblance of normal fashion.

It's a shame to have Djokovic's year end this way and adds urgency to the growing cry for him to pull the plug on the season before he does more and/or serious damage to his shoulder. That the injury has lingered so long is not an encouraging sign, and let's face it: Djokovic will have very little time to smell the roses of 2011 before he has to take the court in Melbourne to defend his title at the Australian Open.