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Novak Djokovic's flexibility, of the body and mind, remains his signature trait
“It's so important to address everything holistically, multidisciplinary, so to say, because then you will just be more prepared,” said the 23-time Grand Slam champion.
Published Sep 07, 2023
I’m trying to enjoy the moments on the court, but there is so much stress and pressure going on that it’s hard to have fun, so to say, on the court. It’s really about finding a way to navigate through the match and win. Novak Djokovic, following his straight-sets quarterfinal win over Taylor Fritz under brutally hot and humid conditions.
NEW YORK—Novak Djokovic has been navigating through points, matches and tournaments—not to mention the history books—with a firm hand and a degree of expertise unrivaled in this or any other era in tennis. When he reclaims the top spot in the ATP on Monday, tournament officials ought to present him with one of those nifty white captain’s hats with the familiar “scrambled eggs” on the brim and enough gold braid to impress an admiral.
The Serbian star will steer his career into the No. 1 ranking for a record 390th week as of Monday, and, with the win over his outgunned and outrun rival Fritz, into his 47th Grand Slam semifinal (his 13th at the US Open)—one better than the previous best, posted by Roger Federer. The key to it all is flexibility. Not the trademark elasticity of his body, although that plays a role, but the ability to work out any challenge or condition with which Djokovic is presented by an opponent, the ambient conditions, or his own emotions—even when those are roiled, or contradictory.
On Tuesday at the US Open, it was the ambient conditions.
“I am drenched in sweat and I saw Taylor changed shirt a couple of times,” Djokovic said after he conducted another masterclass in grinding out a win over a quality opponent. It was his 250th against a Top 10 player.
The conditions that must have tempted both men to throw in the towel, rather than use it to wipe their brows. The 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 score does not do justice to the ferocity of the rallies over the course of the two-hour-and-34-minute struggle.
This was Djokovic’s 30th consecutive win against an American opponent. You have to wonder why he’s so tough on Yanks when he professes such affection for the Gotham crowd that was propping up Fritz right to the bitter end.
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“I’m actually glad the crowd wants to get into it, because it means that the match is interesting, that they want to be part of it,” Djokovic said in what has become an effective tactic for turning a potentially discouraging and distracting annoyance into a net positive. “They’re [the crowd] having fun. At the end of the day, they pay tickets to come and watch you play, so we try to put on a show and perform for them so they go back home, you know, satisfied that they have been here and enjoyed their day.”
That’s navigation, when you consider the kind of day it was.
The adaptability Djokovic has attained over the course of a career littered with obstacles, starting with a couple of guys named Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and, now, boy wonder Carlos Alcaraz, is a testament to his complicated-sounding but proven approach to all things.
“It's so important to address everything holistically, multidisciplinary, so to say, because then you will just be more prepared,” he said. “You will have more tools that you can use in a given moment.”
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On Tuesday, as on so many other days, patience was perhaps the most important of those tools in his kit. He knew that as much as he was suffering, Fritz was also having trouble dealing with the elements—never mind a first serve prone to the misfire.
“In the crucial moments I guess I just managed to stay tough and find the right shots—make him always play the extra shot, make him run. . . I was very determined,” Djokovic said. “I knew, I had clarity on what I need to be doing on the court.”
That’s brilliant navigation. Win or lose in the coming days, Djokovic is a gifted captain and the rest of us, including his opponents, are just passengers.