NEW YORK—When Novak Djokovic more or less ran the table in 2011, most of us wondered if he wasn’t heralding the dawn of a new era in tennis. The way he manhandled Rafael Nadal in particular that year seemed to be a game-changer. Djokovic overwhelmed Nadal in six consecutive meetings in 2011—all in finals of significant tournaments—then added another crushing blow by defeating him in the 2012 Australian Open final.
But what appeared to be an abrupt if perfectly credible changing of the guard then turned into something quite different. In the seven Grand Slam events since that Australian Open, Djokovic has held the door more often than stepping through it to claim the big prize. He won another major on what amounts to his “home court” on Rod Laver Arena. But he’s given up a lot of ground at the other, still more resonant majors.
This was an interesting and unexpected development and it leads me to wonder, “Is Novak Djokovic a reluctant warrior?”
Here’s a man who owns six Grand Slam titles at age 26, and someone whose record of consistency is impeccable. Djokovic has reached 14 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals, after all. Yet as he powers through what must be the peak years of his career (although Djokovic himself believes the best is yet to come) he sometimes seems more attracted to the role of Hamlet than conquering Hannibal.
Perhaps that long, long journey from what was a war-ravaged tennis backwater to the very peak of the game has left him happy and sated in a way he can’t ignore or control. Perhaps the prospect of winning—of finishing—is less appealing to Djokovic than the practice of striving. After all, Djokovic came among us as a youth tasked with the formidable assignment of catching up (with Nadal and Roger Federer) rather than taking charge.
Perhaps Djokovic’s obvious interest in drama is a liability when it expresses itself on the court. His bearing during a match often suggests introspection; not confidence, not anxiety, not even professional focus, but a kind of brooding.
Whatever the case, the U.S. Open final once again featured Djokovic as the man who made his rival’s dream come true; he allowed Rafael Nadal to put the finishing touches on what he would call his “most emotional” year.
This is the same man who, just a few months earlier, provided the necessary foil for Andy Murray to experience his own “most emotional” of wins at Wimbledon. And didn’t Djokovic also open the gate for Federer to claim his 17th and—thus far—final Grand Slam title last year at Wimbledon, when he came up flat in the semis and played right into the hands of the all-time Grand Slam singles champ?
And what about that crazy overhead Djokovic missed in the semifinals against Nadal at Roland Garros a few months ago, a shot that prefaced an agonizing 9-7 in-the-fifth loss?
With the help of a few other factors, these failures can be woven together into the theory that whatever Djokovic is, one thing he isn’t is a man pre-occupied with building his record and legacy. This isn’t a guy who can’t get enough of winning; if anything, he may be one of the players (like, say, Mats Wilander) who down deep sees no real reason to get greedy and win everything in sight.
We all remember how, early in his pro career, Djokovic sometimes bailed out of difficult situations. Sometimes he had an excuse, like his allergies (the existence of which has been substantiated). He certainly was inexperienced as well as immature, but those days pre-figured what was to come in these most recent times.
Then there’s the image Djokovic projects on the court. A body could be forgiven for looking like an outlaw about to meet a hangman’s rope when he’s standing a court with Nadal at the other end. But Djokovic has been there often enough; surely knows what lies in store. Surely, he also knows the value of a good, strong start as well as the advantage of a confident, eager bearing. Yet Djokovic often starts slowly, and so poorly (by his own lofty standards) that he’s delivering soliloquies to his support team before the match is 30 minutes old.
It’s almost like Djokovic has to talk his way into mustering the appropriate degree of enthusiasm and skill. You could say he needs to warm up or get in the mood, but the more important question is, “Why isn’t he in the mood to begin with?”
Then there’s that matter of 2011, during which we saw a very different Novak Djokovic rip through the competition at nearly every event he entered. The memory of that Djokovic is valuable for understanding the present one, and the dilemma he is facing. Djokovic has the talent to sleepwalk into Grand Slam semifinals; it’s only when his full and utmost attention and desire are required that we see his reluctance and what effect it has on his game. Knowing what it entails, Djokovic may not be ready to make the big push again just yet.
Along those lines, this U.S. Open may have been a critical one for Djokovic; it played out in a way that creates a challenge for him. In some ways, he’s back where he was in 2010, at least vis a vis Nadal and Murray (Federer now is an enormous question mark). Does he have the desire as well as the ability to find that game and mentality he had in 2011, or will that interlude be remembered as something more like magic than the logical outcome of Djokovic’s development and game?
It’s also true that Djokovic has been living off that 2011 record right up to this moment. He became world No. 1, but one of the chief reasons he’s remained there (aside from a brief stint at No. 2 in 2012) was the prolonged absence of Nadal. One clear and obvious message in Monday’s U.S. Open final is that Nadal is the true No. 1, and probably has been since he returned late last winter. It’s just taken him a few months to prove his case.
“I’m still No. 1 of the world in the rankings, but he has more chances to end up [at year’s end] as No. 1,” Djokovic admitted, after the final on Monday. “Look, there are still tournaments to go. We’ll see.”
Presently, No. 2 Nadal trails Djokovic by just 120 ranking points, fewer points than you get for making a Masters 1000 quarterfinal. Djokovic has loads of points to defend this fall; Nadal has none.
If nothing else, this last major has put the final nail in the coffin of Djokovic’s 2011—that’s ancient history now. It’s a new day, and going forward Djokovic will have to rekindle that spirit rather than savor and rest upon it. He can no longer afford to be reluctant.
“I’m still 26, and I believe the best time for my career is about to come,” he declared on Monday night. “I feel that. I believe that. As long as I believe it, the fire of the love towards the game is inside of me. And as long as that’s present, as long as I feel it, I’m going to play this sport with all my heart, as I did for the last 10 years.”
It sounds like Djokovic is already making plans for a big 2014.
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