Saved By Grit

Monday, November 12, 2012 /by

If the signal attribute of the early stage of Novak Djokovic’s career was mercurial talent, and the outstanding quality of his sublime 2011 was bottomless determination, the striking characteristic of his 2012 record, particularly in the late stages, was perseverance, or grit.

That gift may be a close cousin to Nole’s great strength in 2011, but determination alone won’t ever get it done in tennis—just ask David Ferrer—and certainly not when the field is peppered with men like Roger Federer, the all-time Grand Slam singles champion, and the other two amigos who round out tennis’ Big Four.

It takes enormous if not always obvious, chest-thumping confidence, and an equally powerful dose of self-control, to overcome slow starts and hiccups of the kind Djokovic has endured this year, particularly in recent weeks. And it takes more of the same to hunker down and hang onto the coattails of a year-defining match of the kind Djokovic was engaged in today, especially when it looks like it may be slipping away.

Ironically, the type of perseverance Djokovic showed at the just-concluded ATP World Tour Finals in London is easily ignored when pundits or fans begin to read the tea leaves. A few nights ago, Djokovic had to come back from set points down to escape trouble; before that, he spotted Andy Murray a big lead and only just managed to reel him in. Today against Federer, Djokovic coughed up early breaks in both sets.

Those details might tempt you to speculate that Djokovic is slipping, or that he’s been “lucky.” Or that the other guy was too emotional, too old, or too unsure of himself to close him out. Rafael Nadal fans in particular could be forgiven for banging their palms against their foreheads after Federer blew those early leads today, thinking, “If only Rafa were healthy. . .” Be careful what you wish for. Djokovic at this stage seems to have a sliding scale of urgency in his game, and enough grit in reserve to recover from almost any deficit. He may even need to feel peril to play up to his potential.

That’s not a good thing, by any means. But it sure beats going belly up at the first sign of trouble. The reality that emerged for me in the course of Djokovic’s 7-6 (6), 7-5 mastery of Federer is that he’s a player functioning on a slightly different plane from anyone else.

The hallmark of Djokovic’s year was consistency. But his shortcomings in three of the four majors (Australia was the exception) as well as the Olympics legitimately opened the door on the question: Is he really the best player as well as the most consistent one? Going into this year-end tournament, he was in no danger of losing the No. 1 ranking, but Nole was in some peril of not emerging from it as the ATP’s player-of-the-year—which is really the player who had the greatest impact on the game in any 12-month period.

Had Djokovic lost this final, Federer and Murray might have made pretty convincing claims in that regard. But Djokovic took control and prevented the top of the rankings from becoming a Gordian knot.

Djokovic’s performance this week laid the player-of-the-year issue to rest. He’s No. 1 right-side-up, upside-down, and sideways. Set aside the extent to which tennis is a game lived in an eternal present—ruled by the question, “What have you done for me lately?” —Djokovic just finished a year in which he successfully defended his ranking of 2011, even if he didn’t exactly duplicate it. At the end, the final hurdle he faced was the most familiar (and still formidable) one: Federer.

Say what you will about Nadal’s combative zeal, or the jazz-like, ever dangerous unpredictability of Murray. Federer is still the guy who can surprise and hurt you in so many different ways. But partly because of his age (31), he also seems more prone to puzzling lapses. It’s getting harder for him to produce his coruscating best over long periods without respite.

But one thing the ATP No. 2 demonstrated today is that those dazzling patches —when his underrated serve is at its best, his stinging forehand is dialed in, and his backhand is reliable enough to unleash his creative ability—are still more than enough to lift him to equality with anyone . And that indoor court in London was, after all, his court—both surface and ambient conditions tailor-made for his razor-sharp game.

Going into this one, the man who won the first set ended up winning the match 24 of the 28 times these two had played. But it was Djokovic who won all four of those come-from-behind exceptions, and that made the first set in this clash seem that much more critical.

The danger Federer posed was clearly expressed in one first-set statistic: Djokovic was able to win just four of the 15 (27 percent) of the second serves he was obliged to hit. Once Djokovic recovered from an early break deficit, it seemed that every time he was about to take control of baseline rallies with those pile driving groundstrokes of his, Federer would pull a rabbit out of his hat.

It’s easy, watching these two, to assume that Djokovic’s baseline power and ability to defend are just too much for Federer to handle, especially if he’s forced to rely too heavily on that one-handed backhand. But Federer’s offensive talents tend to overshadow how ably he defends, and it’s a plain fact that any ball Djokovic leaves in neutral territory leaves him vulnerable. You simply can’t tread water when you’re rallying with Federer.

For example: Federer was broken for 4-5 in the nine-minute ninth game, which put Djokovic into position to serve out the first set. Djokovic quickly won his first two service points of the next game, but Federer recovered, survived a set point, and broke back on the pure strength of his rally game. When he held the next game with ease to take a 6-5 lead, it seemed like Djokovic was in trouble.

On his first chance against Djokovic’s serve, Federer hit one for the highlight reel—a sharply flicked topspin backhand that seemed to travel parallel with the net from one sideline to the other, dropping just inside the line for a winner. The crowd erupted. The shot had the feel of a momentum-shifter, particularly in light of the previous two games. But even though Djokovic lost the next point, he remained unruffled. He went on to win the game with an ace and two service winners to Federer’s backhand.

Djokovic’s patience paid off in like fashion in the tiebreaker. After an early exchange of mini-breaks, the men held strong to 5-5. Federer’s backhand let him down in the next point, presenting Djokovic with a set point. But Federer broke right back with a highlight-reel, turnaround forehand winner that left Djokovic stunned—but not shattered. On the ensuing point, Federer made a terrible backhand error to fall behind 6-7 with Djokovic to serve. Nole’s hand was steady this time; he hit an inside-out forehand winner off Federer’s service return to take the set.

Federer would not go quietly into the brief night of the off-season; he offered stiff resistance in the second set as well. It started out eerily like the first, but once again the perseverance and tensile resilience of Djokovic was adequate response to those familiar fits of brilliance by Federer.

In many ways, this match was a fitting end to the ATP year, and it certainly was emblematic of Djokovic’s 2012. In the end it was grit that saved Djokovic, and that bodes well for his 2013.

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