Djokovic's Dilemma

Friday, January 31, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

It was a tough assignment to command the spotlight at the Australian Open this year, what with Stanislas Wawrinka belting his way to his first Grand Slam title, Rafael Nadal staggering out of Melbourne with a bad back, a spate of stirring upsets on the women’s side—including Serena Williams’ shocking defeat—and yet another Roger vs. Rafa clash.

Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic got lost in the shuffle. Oh, the world No. 2 collected a measure of headlines and interviews—how could he not? But much of the attention centered less on Djokovic than on his new coach, media magnet Boris Becker. In some ways, Djokovic seemed like the forgotten man at this major. He was the guy everybody took for granted, but not necessarily in a good way. 

It was weird, given what Djokovic and the tournament had meant to each other. He was not just the defending champ, he was gunning for his fourth consecutive title and riding a 28-match win streak that was finally halted by Wawrinka in the quarterfinals, in reprisal of their epic clash in 2013, the one that Djokovic won.

The frustrating end to Djokovic’s defense also highlighted, for anyone who cared to look, a larger and perhaps more puzzling dilemma: Djokovic has now lost at seven of the last eight majors.

It would be one thing if those seven defeats ended with Djokovic outplayed by a peer whose game he was hard put to solve, or unexpectedly upset in a fourth round here, a quarterfinal there. But the astonishing thing is that Djokovic, the pile-driving baseliner who has won 15 of his 31 matches with Federer and who as recently as 2012 had a seven-match winning streak against Nadal, has been looking, acting, and playing like a champ. The only thing he hasn’t done is win.  

Djokovic is a truly great player; the most convincing proof of it is his record against his cohorts in the “Big Four.” Has there ever been a player so good, whose failures over the course of about two years are so difficult to explain?

One thing we know for sure: Whatever is going on with Djokovic, it has little to do with forehands and backhands. He doesn’t have a nemesis, or some extra-technical weakness, like poor mobility or sub-par stamina or focus. This guy does everything exceptionally well, until he doesn’t. And that “doesn’t” tends to kick in when it could just as easily go the other way.

It’s hard to say that Djokovic was out-played in many of those seven losses. The other guy often won because of a hiccup. A moment’s inattention. He won because somebody must, just like plucking petals in the “she loves me, she loves me not” game always leaves the love-struck hero with one answer or the other.

How do you explain that alarmingly uncharacteristic and mangled overhead that probably cost Djokovic an epic win over Nadal in last year’s French Open semifinals? How about those two woeful errors he made on the final two points of his recent loss to Wawrinka? It would be one thing of Djokovic just choked once in a while, interspersed with his majestic performances. But it’s become a bit of a trend, and when you look at it that way, it’s a lot easier to understand why Djokovic chose to ally with Becker.

Becker was known for his free-swinging, embrace-the-pressure mentality. In fact, Djokovic’s mini-collapse against Wawrinka was like a clarification for all those who scratched their heads over the alliance: See here, this is why I hired the great Boris Becker! To help me get over the hump at moments like the one you just witnessed. 

Oddly, though, Becker himself was a flawed champion prone to rebel against the very pressures created by his success. That is often forgotten. Becker had many dark moods, and he actually lost a pile of big matches because the pressure got to him. His tantrums at those times often proved self-destructive. Becker won six Grand Slam titles, the same number that Djokovic has already collected, but he suffered many more puzzling losses than Djokovic has. And while Becker reached the No. 1 ranking, he spent just 12 weeks there—far less time than Djokovic has logged so recently.

It’s certainly too early to tell how this relationship will work out. You can be skeptical about Becker’s credentials, and put this down as a case of the blind leading the blind. But Becker also is the type of man who can inspire a fellow traveler, especially if his protégé isn’t as subject as he was to inner turmoil and emotional vacillations. Or perhaps Becker can impress upon Djokovic the lessons he painfully learned about the need to remain positive, and to control his emotions. 

Perhaps we’re onto something here. Apart from those ferocious, shirt-ripping episodes, Djokovic has managed his emotions far better, day-in, day-out, than Becker ever did. He doesn’t look like a guy who’s being torn up inside. But that doesn’t mean that behind that stoic bearing Djokovic isn’t feeling deeply conflicted, negative, or self-sabotaging. Perhaps Becker can help him get in touch with those feelings, sort them out, and convince him that at the end of the day, all he needs to do is relax and give the ball a good rip every chance he gets, the way Boom Boom at his best often did.

It’s hard to dispute that Djokovic’s struggles began almost immediately after he reached his high-water mark, the five-set, nearly six-hour win over Nadal in the 2012 Australian Open final. My own theory has been that after his career year of 2011, where Djokovic went 70-6, he took his foot off the gas. He wanted to relax, and bask in his ascendancy. He wanted to enjoy being a personage, a player on the world state. He pretty clearly wanted to be regarded in that light. Is it possible that somewhere along the way he just forgot that staple of the tennis’ commandments: Until the day you retire, it’s never about what you did yesterday, it’s about what you’ll do tomorrow.

I can see how a player would want to rebel against that reality. I can see how he could get stubborn, and unconsciously test the mandate. I can also see how even a great champion can get tired of feeling like he must win.

Here’s another thing: Consider the support Wawrinka received among the Australian public in contrast to the relatively tepid cheers Djokovic enjoyed. Given the way the folks in Melbourne embraced “Aussie Kim” Clijsters, who dated Lleyton Hewitt but won in Melbourne just once, you’d think the locals would have found a way to adopt Djokovic after he won his third straight title. Crocodile Nole, anyone?

That never really happened, and you have to wonder if that didn’t play into Djokovic’s frame of mind last week. He wants to be liked, and he does all sorts of things to be liked (not all of them successfully). By and large, these are secondary issues, but they contribute to Djokovic’s dilemma.

I’m not sure that Djokovic will ever become Mr. Popularity like his Big Four counterpart Federer, but he certainly could regain his lost position as a worthy and admirable No. 1. Nobody, but nobody, has a more seamless and well-balanced game. Yet in the past eight majors, Djokovic has been a winner once, a beaten finalist four times, a semifinalist twice and, most recently, a quarterfinalist. 

Whatever is ailing Djokovic, it’s not the superiority of his rivals, nor the condition of his strokes. Perhaps Crocodile Nole just needs to grow back some teeth.

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