Hero of the Fall
by Pete Bodo
Okay, so let's begin this discussion with a multiple-choice question. Who said, "I’m playing well, moving well, motivated mentally and full of energy. I’m hoping that it’s going to stay that way."
A: Andy Roddick, after he won the Miami Masters back in April.
B: Novak Djokovic, after he improved his record in matches delayed for at least 24 hours by rain to 1-1.
C: Roger Federer, in his press conference after winning the Australian Open at the beginning of this year.
D: Andy Murray, after establishing a personal best score in the new F-! 2010 video game for Playstation 3 or Xbox 360.
If you chose "B," you're a winner (If you chose "A," you were just duped by the picture I ran at the top of this piece. Clever me.)
Anyway, when was the last time you heard a top player issue such a strange utterance in the month of October?
And it isn't like Djokovic has been cooling his jets since he was upended in the Wimbledon semis by Tomas Berdych, in one of the least persuasive matches Djokovic has ever played. Djokovic has been on a rampage ever since. Sucking it up after that critical failure against Berdych, Djokovic returned to lead Serbia, a nation still in recovery mode and therefore given to chest-thumping and overt displays of national pride, to the Davis Cup semifinals with singles wins over two Croatians, Ivan Ljubicic and Marin Cilic. (It was almost fitting that Djokovic bagged that benchmark 50th win of the year in Shanghai yesterday against Ljubicic, while Cilic played a desultory match and was upset by Andreas Seppi.)
Djokovic followed up his Davis Cup heroics with a semi in Toronto (where he lost to Roger Federer) and a quarter in Cincinnati (where he lost to Andy Roddick). You all know what happened at the U.S. Open; Djokovic bested Federer in five and brought unbridled aggression to the final against Nadal. It was eye-opening and spine-tingling, despite Nadal's ultimate triumph. Djokovic then played a critical role in Serbia's Davis Cup drive by taking out Berdych in a tough semifinal tie; Serbia will now play France for the title.
At about this time, with that record, any comparable ATP or WTA pro could be forgiven for quietly writing off the fall as a time to either gather information (for use in the year-end championships) or relax and bask in a sense of his own badness. But Djokovic, after an appropriate rest, bounced back to win Beijing and he showed no interest in pausing to smell the roses. He went straight to Shanghai, where the guy is even playing doubles.
Of course, the doubles is all about the upcoming Davis Cup final. Is there any doubt that it's the No. 1 priority for Djokovic now? The great, hidden benefit in his situation is that wherever he plays until the final, Djokovic can swing from the heels, relieved from feeling any pressure whatsoever—a circumstance that makes any quality player especially dangerous. And that's bad news for Nadal, Federer, and even Murray, who could certainly use a late-season surge of his own to get his reputation back on track.
Djokovic is a man remade, and that's cause for celebration. But his revival also contains some valuable truths about his profession. If anyone has reason to complain about the nearly year-round calendar, it's Djokovic. And while he's a sturdily built guy, he's never exactly been an iron man. So how come he's gamboling across the court these days, 50 matches into the year, and declaring he's fresh, motivated, and ready to mow down anyone standing in his way? You can't put it down to adrenaline, because that can't be generated on a time-release basis. You can't attribute it to some new fitness regimen, because there isn't one. There's really just one reason Djokovic is so sanguine about the rest of the year. He wants to play.
Once again, it demonstrates that despite the siren song off a longer off-season, one to which both tours are dangerously attracted, tennis is by nature an interval sport. And the spacing between the major occasions in tennis, with the exception of Davis Cup, allows for the pros to have adequate rest and recovery. When the players complain about the length of the season, they're just like anyone else who's given to whining about the number of hours he or she must dedicate to work. And the one thing that most successful people, in any field, seem to have in common is their willingness and ability to put in the hours.
Federer provides us with another good example. Before jump-starting his campaign again in Shanghai, he declared that he was well-rested and coming off intensive training in the period following the U.S. Open. Federer is playing straight through to the end of November, and seemingly looking forward to the experience. That must be partly because it offers him one more opportunity to win back ground he's lost to Nadal this year, and under the conditions most favorable to Federer's game. It's funny how the fall is now a time of opportunity, not a period of punishment.
Djokovic undoubtedly will have something to say about Federer's plans, while Nadal is so close to enjoying utter dominion over the game that he can almost taste it, or could if he can ever get that taste of silver or pewter out of his mouth. Seriously, the guy has to stop biting those trophies, because who knows what chemicals go into plating them? Headline: Nadal Hospitalized, Suspected Metal Poisoning.
What a fall it's turning out to be, and who would have predicted it? It all goes to show the calendar isn't a problem unless you want to make it one. Tennis ought to celebrate the fact that it's a year-round, interval sport; it's a mark of distinction, not a liability. Injuries are a problem, for sure, but not a seasonal one. Lack of motivation is problem, but one that's no more likely to be solved than the injury problem by a shortening of the year. All it takes to create a credible and compelling fall narrative is desire.
Just ask Novak Djokovic.