MIAMI—As the undisputed leader of the ATP pack, Novak Djokovic is in the unenviable position of having to spend 2012, or at least the first half of this year, competing not just with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and the occasional outlier, but with. . . himself, circa. 2011.
Djokovic helped launch that process, and cleared the first hurdle it put in his path, with his triumph at the first Grand Slam event of the year, the Australian Open. He stumbled at the next stage, losing in the semifinals at Indian Wells. He recovered here at the Sony Ericsson Open, throttling Andy Murray in the final, 6-1, 7-6 (4). Today, instead of his preferred, all-black evening wear, Djokovic wore white, with a duckbill cap. Why does its bill always look extra-long, and give Djokovic the air of an eager 11-year-old?
It was a terrific win for Djokovic, yet today the champ was not the indomitable, fierce, inexhaustible champion who outlasted Nadal in last year's epic three-set final, ending 7-4 in a tiebreaker.
It may seem odd and perhaps even unfair to quibble with a guy who’s won a Grand Slam tournament and a Masters event by the end of March, lost just two matches this year (20-2), and didn’t lose a set en route to this title. But that’s what great players bring upon themselves, for better or worse. And when it come to 2011, this past month indicates that the most realistic approach is to acknowledge, “That was then, this is now.”
Djokovic himself knows just how true that is. As he said after the final: “Well, look, you know, that (2011) season was incredible, especially the opening five, six months of the year. (But) every year is different. So I'm coming in this year with a Grand Slam win and now a Miami win, couple of semifinals. I think I'm playing equally well as I did 12 months ago.
"But again, it's different—different approach. I still want to fight for every title, as everybody else, have this positive mindset, not really defending or calculating how many points I can lose and things like that. So every tournament for me is equally important.”
Coincidentally, the tiebreaker that concluded this one also ended 7-4 in Djokovic’s favor, and had Murray found a way to punch through it, the world No. 1 might have found himself in trouble. As the winner said, “He (Murray) always comes back, even when you think you have control. That’s why it was very important for me to close it out in two sets.”
True enough. Murray’s game and personality are veined with the stubborn and unpredictable, locking down his identity as what you might call the ultimate lurker. More than any other player, he manages to look completely out of it while being very much in it. Part of this is his poor body language. It’s to the point now where you have to wonder if changing it requires an act of discipline and calculation—or a full-blown personality transplant.
Murray played a horrible, error-strewn first set. Then he redeemed himself by forcing Djokovic to play a prudent tiebreaker to escape with a two-set win.
The main reason Murray can’t be trusted to disappear, even when muttering to himself and head hung low, is because of his explosiveness and the versatility with which Djokovic is well familiar. As he said:
“He (Murray) has a lot of shots in his repertoire, and can be playing equally offensive and defensive. He's a great athlete, great agility, balance, you know, anticipation on the court, big serve, one of the best returns in the game. He's got all of the variety in the game. That's why he's so dangerous on any surface.”
In other words, he’s just like Djokovic, but not as good. Always.
And that versatility can only kick in once the serve and return are in play, which appeared to be a saving grace for Djokovic today. He served close to 70 percent, more than 10 points better than Murray. That often defused potentially dangerous situations and kept Murray at bay.
But what really hurt Murray was the outstanding part of his game, his return. The world No. 4 from Scotland managed to win just 26 percent of first-serve return points, and 38 percent of second-serve returns. As he said, "I didn’t return well today, which is normally one of the best parts of my game. That was the difference, in my opinion.”
There was another striking difference, though, which isn’t quantified on the stat sheet. Murray excelled at the part of the game that is Djokovic’s forte, the rally. Time and again, Murray out-belted—and out-lasted—Djokovic in baseline rallies of the kind that the Serb is habituated to winning.
Of this, Murray said: “It was a lot of long points, a lot of close games. Once I got into longer rallies, I felt fine. It was a very hot day, tough conditions for both of us. . . I mean, I was not getting into enough of his service games because I missed too many returns. You know, if I was able to get into more longer rallies on his service games, then maybe it would have been different result in the second set.”
This leaves Djokovic with something to ponder on as he leaves for the European clay-court swing. I wondered what his spirits were like at this stage of the year, compared to 2011, and he replied:
“Um, well, I feel that, you know, being No. 1 and having the best year of my career in 2011 is—you know, I'm playing at the peak of my form and I'm playing the best tennis that I have played.
“So I have to use that as much as I can, you know, coming into every tournament that I play. The competition is getting stronger, I believe. Everybody is so professional nowadays.
“You have the top players playing in all the top events, you know. That wasn't the case maybe five, 10 years ago. So that makes it even tougher for anybody to win a title. But I'm ready for it, you know.”
Whatever the narrative becomes in the coming months, it’s unlikely to be the same as was in 2011.