Believers

Tuesday, February 21, 2012 /by

NdEven before Novak Djokovic had won the Australian Open this year, he was asked whether he thought that he could become the first man since 1969 to win a calendar year Grand Slam.

“I have to believe anything is possible,” he said.

So far, so good; one down, three to go.

A couple of weeks later, as he was receiving the Laureus Award for Sportsman of the Year in London, Djokovic was asked if he thought he could take it a step farther and throw the Olympics in with the Grand Slam, matching Steffi Graf’s once in a lifetime Golden Slam of 1988. Again, he didn’t blink.

“I think everything is possible,” Djokovic said. “I have to stay optimistic. I have to believe in what I do and believe in my abilities and that I can win on all surfaces.”

Soon after that, Victoria Azarenka, who like Djokovic won the Aussie Open, is No. 1 in the world, and has an unblemished record in 2012 thus far, was asked in Doha whether she thought that the Golden Slam was in her grasp as well. Azarenka also didn’t back down, even if she was just slightly more circumspect than the Djoker had been.

“That’s everybody’s dream to achieve,” Azarenka said, “but, I mean, it’s a very difficult task. But I definitely am going to have the mentality to try to do that.”

Has Djokovic started a trend? He has, at the very least, brought a different attitude to being No. 1 than his predecessor in that spot, Rafael Nadal. Ever the realist, Rafa has always stressed the difficulty of continuing to win “at the highest level,” and of taking home multiple majors in any year. It wasn’t just himself that he was talking about, either. After Djokovic beat him in last year's U.S. Open final to win his third major of 2011, Nadal told him that his season would probably be “impossible to repeat.” Rafa knew from experience. He had done the same thing the previous year and failed to do it again. The superstitious Nadal’s instinct is to be on guard at all times against overconfidence. Every win still seems, on one level, to be a relief to him, something to celebrate.

Djokovic, on the other hand, believes that a positive mindset, whether or not its totally realistic, is the only way he's going to create a positive reality. Nadal frees himself to compete by accepting that he can lose, that losing is part of the reality of sports, no matter who is playing. Djokovic begins by willing himself to believe he can do anything; when he loses, he can walk off knowing that at least he put himself in the best place, psychologically, to win.

It’s not always that easy, of course. In each of his last four matches at the Australian Open, Djokovic fought with himself for significant stretches before he could relax enough to play his best tennis. It took awhile for him to believe, but in the important moments he did, and it allowed him to win without his best stuff. This also isn’t the first time that Djokovic has talked a big game and backed it up. Remember the way the young Novak came up, happy to tell anyone who would listen that he wanted and expected to be the next No. 1? It took a little longer than he might have anticipated, but belief eventually created reality.

Does Azarenka’s echo of this anything-is-possible style signal a new school of Djokovichian positivity? I won’t say that. But I was curious to hear what John Isner thought about his own future after his win over Roger Federer in Davis Cup two weeks ago:

“I do realize now,” Isner said, “no matter the surface, no matter the opponent, a lot of times the ball, the point, the match is going to be in my control, no matter who I’m playing, no matter if it’s Roger Federer or somebody who isn’t even ranked.”

In Isner’s case, “reality,” or at least his performance against Federer, has begun to create belief. We’ll see how far it takes him. A tennis player could do worse than to think like Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka right now.

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