Having spent the last week screwing around up in the Discovery Islands off the coast of British Columbia, sans any electronic distractions, my re-entry into routine days left me with a number of impressions about my life and habits, one of which is that a tennis tournament, even a one-week Masters event, is a pretty long, drawn-out affair. The way the tours are organized diminishes that truth, because the calendar must be filled, and we get used to the endless loop of tournaments, week-after-week.
But take a little time away and you'll see how one of the signature traits—and strengths—of tennis is that each tournament has a pretty rich and complex narrative, played out over an unusually long span of time. Football (yours or ours, take your pick), hockey, F-1 auto racing, a track meet—all of them are over quickly, often within just a few hours. But in what other sport does it take a week (at the minimum) to decide a winner (here's a chance for all you cricket fans to leap to your feet)?
Playoff series don't count, either. The match may be the basic competitive unit in tennis, but we don't stage individual matches, at least not in any way that influences rankings or history; we stage tournaments—one or two-week affairs, almost every week, all over the globe.
Hence, when I began poking around on the Internet this morning and learned that Novak Djokovic had won Montreal, I was able to appreciate the endurance required of a champion. It seemed like forever since I'd last read his name, although it was just a week. Endurance, longevity, discipline, focus—all of them are relevant words in more ways than one, because in winning Montreal, Djokovic added another line item to a resume that, had it been offered up as a scenario for 2011 way back last December, might have seemed preposterous.
And in winning his ninth title of the season, Djokovic sent a powerful signal that didn't necessarily need to be broadcast once he won Wimbledon. His win yesterday essentially put his rivals on notice—It isn't enough. . . This is a fairly big deal, because—well, who would have faulted Djokovic for taking his foot off the gas after those dreamy few days in which he assumed the No. 1 ranking, won Wimbledon, and resoundingly dismissed Rafael Nadal's best chance to halt the Djokovic juggernaut?
That Djokovic returned from his well-deserved post-Wimbledon break to become the only active player to win the first tournament he played after earning the No. 1 ranking may not be the most memorable of the stats and records that Djokovic has been accumulating, but it's telling. Most mountaineers pause to take a deep breath and snap a few photos when they hit a summit; clearly, making the summit hasn't been Djokovic's sole and simple ambition.
Djokovic is playing extraordinary tennis these days, and it isn't mainly because of that whistling two-handed backhand, the gulten-free diet, or any real or imagined decline in the games of Nadal or Roger Federer—although some or all of those elements have certainly made his path smoother. Djokovic has been running amok because he decided. . . This isn't enough.
That happened roughly a year ago, when something must have clicked deep inside Djokovic's competitive heart and told him that it was no longer enough to be the third wheel in one of the game's great, historic rivalries. And since then two qualities have propelled Djokovic's rise and enabled him to utterly dominate the game in 2011: his appetite and his confidence.
Tennis isn't rocket science. Talent is the ante required to get you in the game, and consistency (arrived at through diligent, purposeful practice) the sum required to stay at the table. But in order to win big, you need those two things that Djokovic has been relying on this year—appetite and confidence. It may seem ironic to use the word "appetite" as a synonym for desire, given the role that dietary changes have played in Djokovic's success. But I see Djokovic's decision to adopt his diet as a more significant indicator of what was to come than the diet itself (while being the first to admit that separating the two is tricky business). In taking that decision, he wasn't just saying I want to do better, I want to feel better. . . he was making a commitment to that final stage of development, a level most players don't reach because they don't win enough to bring it into view.
Once Djokovic made that commitment, the confidence was sure to follow in a measure commensurate with his results. Confidence is both an appetite booster and suppressor; winning begets the desire for more winning, but it also consistently reminds a player that winning is not just possible, it's probable—at maximum flow, confidence might even make winning appear. . . pre-ordained. Confidence makes a player less greedy, because he knows he can eat all he wants. Confidence is what enables you to fend off five break points to win a set the way Djokovic did at the onset of his final with a game Mardy Fish yesterday. Listen to what Djokovic said afterwards:
"There was a lot of tension going on. It was a very close match. He wanted to win that match as much as I did. That's why we were quite intense. It was a mental fight, as well. It was not just physical. But I managed to hold my composure when I needed to.”
It's all in these last three sentences, everything you need to know about tennis and why certain players are able to dominate.
As a rueful Fish observed: “I felt like I had an opportunity today, I really did. . . If you try to forget who you’re playing against, you’re just playing another player, maybe you can figure out a way to get a break or two there. I had a lot of shots early in that first set on my racquet that I’d like to have back.”
That's the thing, though, you can't forget who you're playing—not if a guy like Djokovic calls on any of the small ways he can remind you, which is the difference these days between a Djokovic and a Federer. It's hard to imagine getting tired of being Federer, but I think Roger is. And so he's not reminding people of who is anymore. He's going about his business, diligently and quietly, no longer much interested in making a fuss, while Novak is very happy to be Djokovic, and letting everyone know about it.
It was a mental fight, as well. . . The words ought to be engraved somewhere for all players to read.
I wouldn't discount the physical challenge posed by the game, but the way Djokovic is playing now, the last thing that stands out about him is stroking fundamentals or footwork. He's in a special place, mentally and emotionally, a place that very few people get to inhabit for any number of reasons, starting with the fact that the overwhelmingly great number of them don't ever get a chance to test themselves in such a comprehensive and transparent way. Is there anything with less gray area than a tennis score?
One reason it's exciting to behold a run like Djokovic's is because we know it can't last. It's not that we want to see it end; it's more that, like a good book, we know it must end, it will end, it has to end. And even those of us who hope it never ends knows that it will. Very few players, including some great ones, never got us to the point where we are today with Djokovic, simply because they never reached a comparable level of sustained brilliance—a level that's amazing as well as unsustainable.
Or is it?
Over the past few years, we've seen quite a few amazing things come to pass, including Federer's Grand Slam record, Serena Williams' serial resurgences, Nadal's conquest of Federer, Nadal's clay-court ascendancy and, yes, even the emergence of a Top 5 British player. We're living in the anything-is-possible era, in which widespread chatter about Nadal perhaps eclipsing Federer's record of 16 Grand Slam singles titles has yielded, overnight, to questions like, "Will Nadal ever beat Djokovic again?"
These days, any player who claims to be a big dog (as Andy Roddick is at Wimbledon) has to make his case quickly because an even bigger dog (Federer at Wimbledon) is already stepping off the porch. Right now, Djokovic is the biggest dog of them all.
On Wednesday, I'll look at some of the statistics Djokovic has been posting and compare them with those of some of his rivals, present day as well as historic.