Keeping His Head
WIMBLEDON, England—As this tournament began, the talk surrounding Novak Djokovic was about how he had ended up on the soft side of the draw. Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga were crowded together in the bottom half, while Djokovic all alone at the top, with a proverbial cake walk to the final.
Things, as you may have noticed, haven’t turned out exactly as planned. It didn’t matter how close Federer, Nadal, and Tsonga were to each other in the draw, because all of them were out by the second round. That seemed, at first, to clear a space wide enough for Murray and both of his dogs to stroll through; after his match this afternoon, Djokovic was even asked, “Have you watched Murray’s side of the draw with a little bit of envy?” But today even Murray succumbed to the madness of this year's Wimbledon by nearly losing his quarterfinal to Fernando Verdasco.
Probably the best thing that happened to Djokovic at this event was that he avoided playing on that strange and sinister afternoon forever to be known as Black Wednesday. For him, the fortnight has been little but peace and tranquility, on and off the court—Wimble-Zen rather than Wimble-geddon. The big thing we’ve learned about his life in the village so far is that he has been visiting a Buddhist temple in his neighborhood.
“It’s very calm and quiet, obviously,” Djokovic says. “I stay in a house which is very nearby. We like Wimbledon and London in general because there’s so many beautiful parks and nature, places which you can call getaways during these two weeks.”
This isn’t the first time Novak has proclaimed his love for the outdoor spaces of England. Two years ago, he made friends with a “lucky squirrel” that lived in his backyard and returned for regular feedings from him. Maybe this is a good sign: Djokovic won his only Wimbledon title that year; if a rodent can lead him to victory, shouldn’t a Zen master be able to do the same?
“Inner peace at [the important] moments can help your concentration,” Djokovic said after his win over Tomas Berdych on Wednesday, “It can help you choose the right shot.” Or as Rudyard Kipling wrote, in the poem whose lines are carved on an All England Club wall: "If you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs..."
Djokovic’s run to the semifinals—his 13th straight at a Grand Slam—doesn’t deserve to be labelled a cake walk. Along the way, he’s beaten two players who have defeated him this year, Tommy Haas and Tomas Berdych. But he also hasn’t lost a set. His emphasis, he says, has been “serving efficiently,” and for the most part he did that today. Djokovic hit 16 aces, won 78 percent of his points on his first serve, and faced just two break points.
That he lost both of those points, and fell behind a double break in the second set may be of mild concern to him. But he couldn’t have expected completely smooth sailing against Berdych, the world No. 6. In the end, the big Czech did what he could to help. At 5-5 in the first set tiebreaker, Berdych made two straight errors to hand over the set; and he gave back a break in the second set by clumsily drilling a putaway forehand into the net.
Djokovic said he started this match a little too defensively, but there’s not much more for him to complain about at the moment. He was, as usual, effective with his deep backhand returns, and while he took a spill today and ended up in a full split, he popped up unharmed. Footing is usually an issue for Djokovic, so it’s notable that he hasn’t had much trouble with the grass this year so far. In an echo of something Jim Courier said last week, Djokovic claimed today that his penchant for skidding on all surfaces may actually keep him from toppling over here.
“Sliding is there, and I do slide on some balls,” he said today. “Sometimes it helps me to recover better, to defend better. It’s the way I've been moving all my life.”
Djokovic also appears to be peaking at the ideal time. After his early rounds, he said there was room for improvement—he hadn’t played a grass-court match before this tournament in close to a year. But everything clicked in his fourth-rounder against Tommy Haas. “I played a great match,” Djokovic said afterward. It’s rare to hear a top player sound so enthusiastic about a performance.
Djokovic was so enthusiastic that he went so far as to say this:
“I think I’m actually playing better tennis on grass than two years ago when I won this tournament.”
Normally I wouldn’t say that Djokovic is the type to send verbal chin music to a rival. But it’s possible that these words were meant to be heard by Murray. After all, Djokovic was saying them to the best messenger available, the British press. Of course, before he gets to Murray, Djokovic will face Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals. Djokovic is 8-3 against the Argentine lifetime, but 0-1 on grass; del Potro beat him here for the bronze medal at the Olympics last year. Del Potro took a scary-looking tumble against David Ferrer today, but it obviously didn’t hurt him in his straight-set win, and he thinks he’ll be fine for Friday.
Most satisfying to Djokovic is that he has been able to put the events of the French Open behind him. Paris was an emotional roller-coaster: It was there that he learned that his first coach, Jelena Gencic, had passed away; and it was there that he suffered the bitter disappointment of losing a five-set classic to Rafael Nadal in the semifinals.
“I’ve managed to come here and play well,” Djokovic said a few days ago at Wimbledon. He saw it as a sign of growth on his part. “That’s probably one of the good learning experiences [of my career],” he said.
Djokovic hasn’t been back to Serbia since the French Open. He said that he wanted to win that tournament for his late coach, but it hasn’t been a major of topic of conversation in his press conferences here. Maybe a little time, a little distance, and a little peace and quiet have helped. Anything could still happen: Djokovic was playing good tennis until he was ambushed by Federer in the semifinals here last year. But in this Wimbledon where everyone has been losing his head around him, Djokovic has been keeping mind, and body, where they need to be.