MIAMI—Not long ago, I came across a video in which Janko Tipsarevic, then still miles from his current Top 10 position, spoke of his short-term goals. I’m going to paraphrase, which will be easy because the idea is beautifully simple in a way that, once you read it, may make you smack your forehead and say, “Duh!”
Tipsarevic said his goal was to take care of his serve and get to four-all or five-all in his matches, especially against the better players, because everybody—but everybody—may choke. I’ve been waiting to use that nugget for months, and this is as good a time as any, given Tipsarevic’s 7-6 (3), 6-2 win over Grigor Dimitrov today. Tipsarevic is now in the quarterfinals.
You know Dimitrov—the 6'2", 20-year-old Bulgarian who’s been touted as the next Roger Federer. But judging from what I saw today, it’s more like Dimitrov is a little bit Marat Safin and a little bit Richard Gasquet. Which means he's gifted, but boy, beware the down side.
Tipsarevic, by contrast, has developed over the past few years into a great example of talent fully realized. He kept the pressure on Dimitrov and and contained his explosive game. He he kept chipping away, playing intelligent and highly disciplined tennis—wise, veteran tennis—until Dimitrov’s resolve and nerve finally wavered in the tiebreaker.
Dimitrov double-faulted to go down 1-3 in the overtime, and although he got the mini-break back a few points later when Tipsarevic flubbed a forehand approach, he immediately hit another prodigious double fault to go down 3-5, followed by a forehand error that put the ‘breaker on the Serb’s racquet. Tipsarevic converted the set point when a dispirited Dimitrov botched a second serve to his backhand.
Tipsarevic held to begin the second set. After Dimitrov won the first two points of the next game, Tipsarevic reeled off four points for the break. He took advantage of his disappointed opponent to hold swiftly and decisively. In the blink of an eye, it was 3-0 Tipsarevic, and for all practical purposes the match was over.
Dimitrov’s problem, the way I see it, is that he seems intoxicated by his own power. He likes to get a lot of action on the ball, but that requries taking huge cuts; it’s a demanding way to make a living, and you can take that quest for naked power too far. A cup that’s overflowing is no more desireable than a cup that isn’t full. Tipsarevic, by contrast, has a beautifully modulated game. He understands his shortcomings and strengths, and picks his spots carefully. His cup is brim full.
It wasn't always that way for Tisparevic, who completed one of the more impressive acts of self-transformation in recent years. I tracked him down after the match to ask about that process and, of course, about that “everybody may choke” comment I can't really forget.
Janko smiled when I brought up that subject and clarified his thoughts: “I wouldn’t rely on beating top players that way, by waiting for the choke, but I tried to say that you can’t allow the top guys a flying start. If they start feeling good, your chances decrease dramatically because then the pressure is off them, and they feel pressure mainly against lower-ranked players. When playing each other, it’s easier.”
When I remarked upon Tipsarevic’s impressive evolution from “interesting” Top 50 journeyman into a staple of the Top 10, he said “In my case the change was about self-discipline. I am trying to keep things much more simple than I used to. I am following and obeying rules, especially outside the tennis court, and trying to make my life in a way that 2 and 2 and 2 and 2 adds up to eight. I am not trying to divide or multiply anything. It is not necessary.”
Tipsarevic’s journey in tennis has been a long one, and youngsters like Dimitrov might benefit from knowing that it’s not just about how you feel, how hard you can belt the forehand, or how there's always another tournament if you don't feel up to the challenge of the day.
“I don’t want to say I was exactly a ‘failed’ tennis player,” the thoughtful 27-year-old said. “But I was around 60, or 50. . . 40 [in the world rankings]. That’s good, but to achieve the mental point of view I have right now, and have had for the last year, took me quite some time. I feel at the same time that guys like Djokovic and Nadal had this feeling in them since they were 10 years old. I just feel sorry because I didn’t have this mental toughness outside the court in my early stage, but I feel tremendously lucky and happy to have it now.”
This streamlined view of life and the discipline it requires isn’t necessarily inherent; Tipsarevic says he learned much of it from his coach, Dirk Hordorff. “I was over-thinking stuff and I was asking too many unnecessary questions,” the player said. “At the end of the day, they were stupid questions. Dirk taught me how to simplify things.”
The on-court benefit of those off-court simplifications was evident today. As Tipsarevic said, analyzing the match: “In the first set, when he (Dimitrov) was swinging more freely, I patiently waited for my chances and I used them in the best possible way after his mistakes. And in the second set, I was lucky to make a winner right on the line off his first serve.”
It doesn’t get much simpler than that, and thus Tipsarevic is in the quarterfinals and Dimitrov remains a breakthrough waiting to happen. Over time, he probably will learn that just as there are unnecessary questions, there are also unnecesssary statements.