On Thursday, in picking Novak Djokovic to win his semifinal over Stan Wawrinka at the Australian Open, I sang a few praises for Stan before closing with these two sentences: “But Djokovic is still Djokovic. Even when he’s not the very best version of himself, he usually wins anyway.”
In American football terms, Djokovic is the Oakland Raiders of old, a crew of rough-edged competitors whose slogan was “Just win, baby.” In un-American football terms, he’s the Germans; as the famous quote goes, “[Soccer] is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”
Always, of course, is something of an exaggeration, both in the case of the Germans and the case of Djokovic. But when it comes to the tennis player, the concept has been hard to refute for about four years now. Djokovic gets pushed behind the baseline, misses shots he should make, gives back breaks when you think he has the momentum, yells at his coach, smashes his racquet, and hangs his head as if all is lost. Then, after four or so hours of this, you see him walking to the net as the chair umpire says, “Game, set, match, Djokovic.”
The phenomenon was much in evidence in his 7-6 (1), 3-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-0 win over Wawrinka. Expectations were high for this one; these two had split five-set classics in Australia in 2013 and 2014, and both times the winner had gone on to hoist the champion’s trophy. But if those matches were heavyweight throwdowns, this was a fight that went 15 rounds because neither guy could land a punch. The winner-to-error count has never been pristine when they face off, but it was especially ugly this time: Djokovic’s was 27 to 49, Wawrinka’s 42 to 69. Djokovic in particular struggled to make any headway from the baseline; as the fifth set began, he had connected on just one backhand winner all night. He didn’t hit any winners at all in the fourth set.
“I didn’t not play on the level I intended before the match,” Djokovic said with some understatement. "I’m proud of the fighting spirit I had, but the level of performance was not where I wanted it to be.”
Wawrinka was more bluntly negative afterward. And like Djokovic, he was a little perplexed by the evening in general.
“Describe the match?” Stan said. “Strange. Not the best, for sure...I was trying to fight and to make some good choice, but I was just not there.”
Wawrinka claimed that he was feeling the effects of a reduced off-season, after helping Switzerland to the Davis Cup title in November. Before the match he told his coach, Magnus Norman, that, “I was mentally completely dead and no battery. Tough to focus on what I want to do. Tough to focus on my game.”
This match was rife with “turning points” that led to dead ends. Just when you thought one guy had found his range, he lost it entirely; just when one player appeared to be gathering momentum, he ran straight in the other direction. The two moments that mattered most came in the opening two games of the fifth set. With Djokovic serving to start, Wawrinka put a backhand on the baseline to set up break point. In the next rally, he had another look at the same backhand, but he inexplicably pulled up and hit it long. Djokovic, who appeared to be reeling at that stage, held. With some vintage sliding defense, he went on to break in the next game after another Wawrinka backhand sailed long. Stan didn't help his cause by double-faulting twice in that game.
“The crucial turning point in the fifth set was the opening few games,” Djokovic said. “That’s when I felt a little bit more relaxed and not as pressured from his side....He missed one backhand that was not too difficult for him to make, but he missed it on the break point. I knew that if I do hold my serve that it’s going to give me a lot of confidence for the rest of the set. That’s what happened.”
What happened on the men’s side in Melbourne is that the Big 4, represented this time by Djokovic and Murray, survived the attack of the youth brigade, as well as the breakthrough brigade, to reach their third Australian Open final against each other. Djokovic beat Milos Raonic in the quarters and last year’s Aussie Open champ, Wawrinka in the semis. Murray took care of Grigor Dimitrov and Nick Kyrgios, before stopping Tomas Berdych’s surprise run in its tracks.
This is bound to disappoint some people. Djokovic and Murray, who tend to drag each other’s games down rather than lift them up, have the least-electric rivalry among the Big 4—in Australia, they really are the tennis version of the Germans. Yet with their semifinal wins, Novak and Andy demonstrated why their little club at the top has been so tough to dislodge: Even when they don’t have their A-games, B-games, or C-games, even when they have trouble staying positive and keeping their heads, they still make fewer competitive mistakes, and far fewer fatal ones. They don’t let their brains cramp up as often.
Berdych won the first set over Murray, and then trash-talked him as they walked to the sideline. Why? A ticked-off Murray won the next set 6-0. Wawrinka, serving at 4-5, 40-15 in the third set, with the match in the balance, chose to go for a 120-m.p.h second serve and double-faulted. Why? Djokovic, with that gift in hand, broke him for the set.
We’ll see what else Djokovic does with the gift. Will this Aussie Open be something like his Wimbledon run, where he left all of his nerves and errors and anger behind after edging past Grigor Dimitrov in the semis, and then played crisp tennis against Roger Federer in the final?
“I think I have much more positive things to reflect on in my game and all the matches I played so far in the tournament than the negative,” Djokovic said. “I’m in the finals. In the end of the day, that’s why I’m here, you know, to get that far in the tournament.”
When told that Wawrinka claimed he was "completely dead" before the match, Djokovic's response was telling.
"It was semifinals of a Grand Slam," he said. "Once you're on the court, you really forget about being exhausted or, you know, sick or something like this."
The Big 4 know when they're not allowed to be tired.
I started this column by quoting myself, so I might as well finish the same way. In the spring of 2007, I watched a 20-year-old Djokovic rise up the rankings quickly and, in the blink of an eye, turn the ATP's Big 2 into a Big 3. But I couldn’t put my finger, exactly, on what made him so tough to beat—there was no cannonball serve or huge baseline weapons, and he went walkabout as often as anyone else. Yet in the end he always seemed to stride to the net as the chair umpire said, “Game, set, match, Djokovic.”
I finally had to conclude, without being able to elaborate, that Novak Djokovic was “good at winning.” Eight years later, I can't say anything less.