Writing Himself

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Every ATP and WTA pro crafts a narrative in the public eye, and his life in sport is more — or less — interesting than those of his peers. With his triumph at Wimbledon last Sunday, Novak Djokovic nudged Rafael Nadal out of the way to stake ownership of the “most interesting” story in the ATP.

Everyone loves a good story. Incidentally, that is part of the reason certain players, while respected and appreciated, are never fully loved. Some of our indifference may be caused by the fact that something about the player just rubs us the wrong way, or no way at all.  A player can overcome that — if he layers on an engaging narrative. But even dedicated readers eventually get tired of just pretty words.

So, back to Djokovic.

This guy is one heck of a story teller. He’s taken us to one brink after another, this last the most tension-packed and dramatic of them all. This is no mean feat, in an era featuring two of the greatest ever to swing a racquet, along with the that over-achieving “number two” son Andy Murray.

We know how it all began for Djokovic, back in war-torn Serbia, where the lad raised eyebrows at age 10 among adults for the proto-professional way he packed his bag for that much-anticipated tennis lesson: Headband, check. Extra socks, check. Sandwich and banana, check.

Blind to how difficult it would be to realize that dream of winning Wimbledon, he was lucky to start down the trail leading to London at a time when the sport had finally created an adequate infrastructure for developing those players who, like Djokovic, who had scant chance of making it on their own.

Djokovic’s game was founded in the work of an inspirational and caring first coach, the late Jelena Gencic (Djokovic dedicated his win at Wimbledon to her memory). But his mature game was shaped at the eponymous tennis academy of the former ATP pro who triggered the infamous Wimbledon boycott of 1973, Niki Pilic.

Djokovic more or less burst upon the pro scene at the age of 19,  after a two-year apprenticeship, in 2006. By the end of that year his world ranking was No. 16. Given how volubly Djokovic expresses his patriotism, it’s interesting to note that in 2006 he was in serious discussions with the British about expatriating, and joining with Murray to form the nucleus of a British Davis Cup team. That "plop, plop, plop” sound some heard on the night negotiations broke down was that of British LTA officials hurling themselves off bridges into the Thames.

Djokovic later explained his decision,  “I didn't need the money as much as I had done and I said, 'Why the heck?' I am Serbian, I am proud of being a Serbian, I didn't want to spoil that just because another country had better conditions.”

But by then, Djokovic’s enthusiasm and outgoing personality were also causing him mild problems. After losing two sets to Nadal at Roland Garros, Djokovic retired with respiratory problems and promptly declared that he felt he was the better player, and in a position to win (he stopped short of claiming “I had him right where I wanted him when he won the second!”).  I mention it now because immediately after he subdued Djokovic 2013 U.S. Open final, Nadal wondered aloud how on earth he managed to beat a player as gifted and punishing as Djokovic. Gradually, alliances — Federer and Nadal, Murray and Djokovic — were naturally, perhaps incidentally, forming.

Djokovic started a new chapter in 2008, winning his first major, the Australian Open. During this phase, he established himself as a member of a “Big Four,” but there also were ominous signs: In 2009, he made five Masters 1000 finals and won but one (Paris).

Djokovic took those losses philosophically — a bit too much so, for some. He retired with, or complained about, injuries often enough that each new episode eventually caused his peers to roll their eyes. Djokovic became a YouTube sensation with accurate impersonations of his peers, appointed himself Serbia’s unofficial ambassador at-large, set himself up as a resident of Monte Carlo, and seemed to thoroughly enjoy life. The one thing he did not do was insert himself consistently in the mix at the apex of the game. He seemed to be having too good a time to worry about that.

It all changed in 2011 — or rather, in late 2010, when Djokovic led his team to its first Davis Cup championship. Inspired, he seemed to realize that two full years of his career had passed with nothing more than a runner-up finish at one Grand Slam to show for them. He re-dedicated himself to his career and embraced a panoply of tools, including an enhanced fitness program and a more scientific approach to nutrition. He went on to have one of the greatest single years in tennis history, distinguished by a 70-6 record (four of those losses plus a walkover happened after the U.S. Open) — and an utterly unexpected mastery of Nadal. He also wrested the No. 1 ranking from Nadal’s hands with a resounding win in the Wimbledon final.

But this being Djokovic’s tale, you can guess that wasn’t the end of it. He maintained his form for 2012, a task made substantially easier by the absence of Nadal during the second half (due to knee problems).  But after Djokovic won again Down Under, he lost a semi and two finals at the three other majors: Nadal beat him in the French Open final (shortly before Nadal went on sick leave), Federer took him at Wimbledon, and Andy Murray won their U.S. Open clash.

Djokovic halted his Grand Slam slide at the start of 2012, with yet another title at the Australian Open. But when Nadal returned, it was with a vengeance. He soon had Djokovic back on his heels. The men split six matches, but Nadal won the two big ones — the semifinals at the French Open and the U.S. Open final. By October, Nadal was back up to No. 1. And after losses in the 2014 Australian and French Opens, Djokovic was the owner of a losing record in Grand Slam finals (6-7).

You could assign some of the blame for that to the sheer genius of Nadal and Federer, even Murray. But that sells the spectacularly talented Djokovic short. For he’s a man who appears seems less built for consistent, seamless brilliance (territory staked out amply by Federer) than for heroics — for struggle and striving. He seems to need a crisis to unleash his passion as well as his pride. At heart, he’s a conqueror, not an caretaker — even if, or perhaps because, the job description is more perilous.

The old cliche that it’s darkest before dawn certainly applied to Djokovic at Wimbledon, never more so than after he had come up empty on match point. At the start of the fifth set, the match hung in the balance. And who knows, perhaps Djokovic’s very future as a force in tennis was also on the line, easy as it might be for him to hobnob in the Top 5 in any event for at least a few more years.

During the bathroom break between the fourth and final set, Djokovic confronted the “different demons” he harbored, the “fear and doubt” (his words, from his post-final presser). As we well know, he stared down those wraiths.  In his own words, "I managed to have my convictions stronger than my doubts in this moment."

He added, “[I] managed to push myself the very last step, and to win the trophy."

Granted, English is not his first language. But note his emphasis on stamina, on the simple act of securing the trophy — not the three-million dollar payout, not the prestige, nor the No. 1 ranking, but the trophy — like it was the Grail, and he the knight errant. Which is just what he was, what he seems meant to be.

So another chapter is finished. Djokovic is 7-7 in major finals, back to No. 1, and about to partake of the ambrosia of marriage. How will the change of life, including fatherhood within months, effect Djokovic? The last time he was atop the rankings, he seemed to fall asleep at the switch. This time he may be more vigilant, but keep in mind that he isn’t a caretaker, he’s a conqueror.

As in any good saga, the one Djokovic is writing leaves you feeling that you never know what’s going to happen next.

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