Every player who aspires to be great must pass a series of tests, even if it sometimes seems like he or she is merely being made to jump through hoops. In this, tennis is different from many other sports, particularly team sports. Nobody doubts that you can be a great soccer player without having been on a team that wins the World Cup.
The first hurdle on the fast track to greatness in tennis is triumph at a Grand Slam tournament. After that, you have the mandate to become No. 1, conquer your most dangerous rivals (a tricky proposition, given that those individuals aren't necessarily the best or most successful of your peers), win at least one major on each of the three different surfaces, finish the year at No. 1, earn a gold medal at the Olympic Games, complete a career Grand Slam, and so forth—not necesssarily in that order.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are well down that track by now, with most of the hurdles still standing behind them and a few still rocking on their bases. Novak Djokovic is coming up fast behind them, but he hasn't pulled even yet. This is very frustrating for passionate Djokovic fans, in whose minds he's already passed the tests mainly because, well, because he's Novak Djokovic, and they're smitten by his game and/or his personality. That's okay, plenty of Federer and Nadal fans jumped the gun that way too.
But Djokovic himself knows what he must focus on, and for the moment that's the French Open—an assignment that is apt to be a little trickier now that his remarkable rush of absolutely unimpeachable play that powered him through the first half of 2011 has abated. The only place where that Djokovic rush was halted was at the French Open, where he was beaten by Federer. It was bad luck, or timing, or karma—whatever. Because we all know the dominion Nadal holds over Roland Garros.
But my feeling is that Djokovic has a great, realistic handle on exactly where he stands, career-wise, as he looks ahead to the meat of the tennis season—made even meatier this year by the London Olympic Games (during which the tennis event will be held at Wimbledon). And that will serve him well in the upcoming clay-court season, even if he can't quite duplicate his run of last year.
"I want to start well," Djokovic said last week in Miami. "I want to start strong. I want to go deep in the tournament and, you know, there are a lot of tournaments coming up. Obviously Roland Garros, Olympics, Wimbledon, they are top of the priority list, but still—I want to perform well on all the others."
That "but still" caveat with which Djokovic ends the quote bears remembering, and it's also a testament to the care and thought Djokovic is putting into his career moves. Whatever else might happen, (including what some would see as either a catastrophic or heaven-sent loss to Nadal or Federer on clay) the world No. 1 from Serbia isn't living in the past or feeling pressure to live up to his own record. He seems unencumbered by history, personal or otherwise.
A number of times last week, Djokovic spoke of how he ought to have stepped up his aggression at certain points in a given match at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami. How he needed to "do more" to assert his authority. How he should have made this or that adjustment. It was almost like from match-to-match, he felt compelled to hold himself back and find ways to win - without expending some of the energy he might need later in the year, the kind that fueled him during the Australian Open. And if what we're talking about here is really psychic energy—the kind he poured into every match last year at this time—so be it. It can be as important as physical capability.
That Djokovic won the tournament without losing a set in six matches despite these self-modulations is noteworthy. Who knew that this chest-thumping showman and natural-born ham actor was so mature, and so wise about the nature of his job? Just listen to his assessment of the state of the game, which he rendered when he was asked about the gap between the "Big Four" and the rest of the field.
"There is no gap, you know?" He said. "Every tournament is a new opportunity for all the players to win a title. That's how I look at it. Rankings, you know, I don't need to say too much. You have different surfaces, different seasons that, you know, are more suitable to different kind of players. Clay court is obviously Nadal and Spanish players. . .South Americans. But, you know, I believe that everybody's improving their game on the different surfaces. It's very demanding, you know."
Great players, especially those still on an upward arc, aren't always so clear-eyed and rational about their mission. And when you factor in Djokovic's healthy dose of natural aggression, his playfulness, his general willingness to express his emotions, and even his cultural background (in general, the Serbs are a passionate people), you begin to understand that this guy is a little bit unusual—something for which I don't think he gets nearly as much credit as he deserves.
Nole's mental clarity and general cool-headedness surely helps him day-by-day, as well as in the long term. His self-control is praiseworthy, not just helpful to his mission. He carries himself as well as that icon of elegance, Federer, or that talisman of sincerity, Nadal. When I mull over those qualities and try to find the appropriate one for Djokovic, the one I come up with is somewhat odd: leadership. That's a difficult attribute to exercise in a sport of individual striving, but Serbia's triumph in the Davis Cup in 2010, as well as the effect Djokovic has had on countrymen like Janko Tipsarevic and Viktor Troicki, point toward it.
Djokovic's presidential bearing is readily perceived in his press conferences, where he's not just articulate and engaging but frank and friendly. He's been a world citizen for a long time, it's true. But his ever-increasing command of English is striking (The other day, he said he "prevailed" in one of his matches. This may sound like a terribly ethno-centric measure of judgement, but I find it telling), and he's extremely patient.
One of the signature traits of great leaders, even when they're leading mainly their own lives, is discipline. And we know how important that has been in Djokovic's career thus far. I think this new, still-evolving, and perhaps even unconscious tendency to pace himself also suggests a form of discipline. He's making that transition from playing great tennis because he can to playing great tennis when he wants and needs to. Every player ought to go into a major tournament feeling like he has further resources to draw upon.
After Djokovic won Miami, a reporters asked him if he would allow himself to "go to the bakery," or was he too strict for that?
He replied, "No, no. Right now. . ." he paused and a thought seemed to flash through his mind. "I mean, I don't know. I cannot guarantee anything." Everyone laughed before he added, "But I think I deserve a fresh bagel."
It only figures that a guy who spent so much time feeding bagels to others would abandon his discipline to eat one himself now and again.