Taking One for the Team

Sunday, April 07, 2013 /by

Grand Slam champions always look their best—their happiest and most relaxed—when they’re making the rounds with the winner’s trophy the day after a major final. You've seen the pictures: Rafael Nadal lounging on the Arc de Triomphe, Roger Federer smiling at the top of the Empire State Building, Victoria Azarenka popping champagne down by the Yarra River in Melbourne. All of the concern that we’re used to seeing in their eyes when they’re on court has drained away. All of the worry and work, their faces say, was worth it just for this moment.

This year, though, you may have noticed that there weren't any of these happy snap shots of the Australian Open men’s champion, Novak Djokovic. That’s because, rather than hang around and savor his title for a day, he hopped on a 3:00 A.M. flight—he had to get permission to skip the photo-ops—that was bound, ultimately, for Belgium. Once there, Djokovic would lead his Davis Cup teammates in the first tie of their 2013 campaign. He had a long way to go and a lot of jet lag to get over, and he didn’t have any time to waste, even to enjoy a few extra moments with the trophy. I remember thinking, when Djokovic announced his early departure, something along the lines of: “Wow, he’s celebrating his Aussie Open by getting on a plane at 3:00 in the morning? I guess Novak really is up for Davis Cup this time.”

I thought the same thing when I saw the first photos last week of Djokovic and his teammates in remote Boise, Idaho. And what else could anyone think on Sunday afternoon, as they watched him hobble his way through an ankle injury, and Sam Querrey, in four sets to clinch Serbia’s quarterfinal tie over the United States. While the last two sets were 6-1, 6-0 blowouts, and Querrey was flagging badly by the end, this was one of Djokovic’s most impressive performances of 2013, and an exercise in resilience for team’s sake.

Djokovic fell down and picked himself up in different ways all afternoon. He turned his ankle badly in the third game, then came back out and immediately broke Querrey. Serving for that set at 6-5, Djokovic, grimacing as he swung, saved break points with smart kick serves and held for the set. After losing the next set in a tiebreaker and feeling the emotion in the building swing against him, what did Djokovic do? He won 12 of the next 13 games for the match and the tie. We hear a lot about Djokovic’s movement, but he showed today that he can win when that movement is compromised; his shot-making, his efficiency, and his focus were especially good over the last two sets. That's what playing for country and teammates can do for you.

Djokovic’s was just one of many outstanding moments in this Davis Cup weekend—by now it basically goes without saying that every DC weekend is a big one. This time we had unlikely (and hard to spell) heroes such as Ilija Bozoljac of Serbia and Carlos Berlocq of Argentina, who clinched an upset win for his country over France in a fifth rubber. We had a stunning, out-of-nowhere comeback by Great Britain over Russia from 0-2 down. We had Serbia and Canada each win doubles matches 15-13 in the fifth set, within a few hours of each other. We had a proud defending champion from the Czech Republic move on without its best player, Tomas Berdych. And we had a new DC anchorman, Milos Raonic, send Canada into the semifinals for the first time in the country’s history.

But there’s something special about seeing the world’s best player commit so fully to the team concept; having him, in this case, put the group's interests over his own. Afterward, Djokovic said that he would have an MRI on his swollen ankle tomorrow, and that he was seriously concerned about his status for his next tournament, in his adopted hometown of Monte Carlo. He said, “I sincerely hope I didn’t make it worse,” by playing on it today. He also said that, while he could have stopped playing and the Serbs still would have had a chance to win, there really was no choice; this is his “responsibility” to the country and team. It’s no small risk for him: The most important part of Djokovic’s season, the clay swing that leads to the French Open, begins in two weeks. But Nole, whether he's playing for his parents, his team, his country, or his "family" of fans around the world, is a fairly rare thing in the selfish game of tennis: a star who thrives on community and the larger cause.

While it wasn’t as historic, Djokovic’s weekend in Boise reminded me of another No. 1 player’s, John McEnroe's, in St. Louis in 1982. McEnroe clinched a DC tie for the U.S. over Sweden with an epic, six-hour win over Mats Wilander. He later used the experience to try to sell younger American stars on the beauty of Davis Cup. A week earlier, McEnroe had lost a heartbreaking five-set Wimbledon final to Jimmy Connors, but he was able to put it behind him right away with his Davis Cup win. 

This weekend, Djokovic was coming off a couple of disappointing results of his own, in Indian Wells and Miami. Mentally, his adventures in Boise should clear his mind of those losses. Physically, though, his stalwart commitment to Davis Cup this year could put him in a worse place going forward. To echo Novak’s words: I sincerely hope not.

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