Could the secret to Novak Djokovic’s success at Grand Slams be…playing more like he does at 500s?
Djokovic was all business, all week during his title run in Dubai. If he slammed his racquet, threw his hands in the air, barked at his player’s box, or indulged his frustration in any of the ways we’ve come to expect, I missed it. After an exciting point in his semifinal with Gael Monfils, the Frenchman fell to the ground and looked in Djokovic’s direction with a smile, probably expecting a similarly light-hearted response in return. He didn’t get one. Djokovic turned and walked quickly in the other direction; this wasn’t a day for showmanship, as far as he was concerned. Monfils, prone on the court, was left to smile all by himself.
Soon, Monfils would be left by the side of the road, mowed down by the Djokovic machine for the 17th consecutive time. This was the closest the Frenchman had come to beating him. You can’t come any closer—he had three match points, two on his own serve, in a second-set tiebreaker. Even then, Djokovic remained stoic and focused. He never pulled the mental ripcord, despite the fact that Monfils was the better player for the majority of two sets.
When you’ve beaten someone 16 straight times, you probably tend to think (a) you can find a way to do it again, or (b) your opponent can find a way not to do it again. Djokovic was right on both counts. He stopped missing, while Monfils, visibly weighed down by the pressure of trying to slip past Djokovic for the first time, sent a backhand wide and a forehand long, and then double-faulted at set point.
Saving match points, of course, is something of a Djokovic specialty, and he had an interesting answer when he was asked about it afterward. According to him, there’s no strategy for what to do when you’re match point down, except to treat it like the only point you’re ever going to play.
“It’s like being on the edge of a cliff,” he said. “You know there is no way back, so you’ve got to jump over and try to find a way to survive, I guess, and pray for the best, and believe that you can make it, that there is something is going to help you.”
WATCH—In Dubai, Novak Djokovic defeats Stefanos Tsitsipas, 6-3, 6-4
Djokovic didn’t need to do any praying in his final the next day against Stefanos Tsitsipas. Early on, I thought Tsitsipas was onto something. Every chance he had, he moved forward and tried to take Djokovic’s time away with his forehand. When he was able to execute that plan, it worked; it may be the only way to do damage against Djokovic from the baseline. But just when Tsitsipas had gained the advantage in the rallies, Djokovic grabbed it back with an unreturnable serve.
“It was a little bit of a slow start from me. I was fortunate to hold my service games,” Djokovic said of securing his 79th career title. “He was very close to break my service games that I had in the first set.”
Was Djokovic fortunate? Or is he feeling more confident relying on his serve these days, with Goran Ivanisevic in his corner? So far this year, they’ve made an unbeatable team. Djokovic is 18-0, and he joked yesterday about having a “perfect season.” He’s been close before, and if he’s as business-like at the bigger events as he was in Dubai, he could be close again in 2020.
If you ever wanted to understand the difference in mental make-ups between Djokovic and his rival Rafael Nadal, you only have to look at the way they reacted to their respective titles this weekend. While Djokovic was entertaining the idea—at least for a second or two—of a perfect year in Dubai, Nadal was doing the opposite in Acapulco.
“This title doesn’t mean that I will have a great season,” Nadal said after beating Taylor Fritz 6-3, 6-2 for his 85th tournament win. “It means another good start to the season for me…I played solid, with the right intensity and the right passion, and my forehand worked well.”
Where Djokovic thinks and dreams big, Nadal never gets ahead of himself—he knows that peaks always come with valleys, and he doesn’t want to miss the chance to savor the view from this particular summit.
“At the end of the day, I’m still competing for these feelings that I’m having right now,” Rafa said. “Regardless of the result, I’m always happy playing here.”
WATCH—In Acapulco, Rafael Nadal defeats Taylor Fritz, 6-3, 6-2
This was Nadal’s third win in Acapulco, and his first title of 2020. He didn’t drop a set in five matches. While only one of them came against a seeded player (Grigor Dimitrov in the semifinals), any title that Nadal can win on hard courts is “important,” as he puts it.
The final was one-sided, but it was also a good example of the variety that Nadal can inject into a baseline game that is often dismissed as “one-dimensional.” Nadal kept Fritz at bay and off balance by slicing one backhand, and hitting the next with high-bouncing topspin; by looping his forehand crosscourt two times, and then flattening it out down the line.
Rafa will always be more at home on clay, but he may be more entertaining on hard and grass courts. It’s there that he reveals one of the secrets of all great players: they create their own comfort zones.
Nadal and Djokovic were the headliners this weekend, but the WTA gave us a win of potentially greater significance, in Doha. That’s where Aryna Sabalenka bludgeoned her way to her second straight Premier 5 title. After surviving a couple of close calls early in the event—you really wouldn’t expect a tournament to be entirely smooth sailing for Sabalenka—she finished with a 6-3, 6-3 final-round win over Petra Kvitova that may have been her most convincing performance since her breakout year in 2018.
WATCH—In Doha, Aryna Sabalenka defeats Petra Kvitova, 6-3, 6-3
When I say “bludgeoned,” I mean it in the most admiring way—this was Sabalenka at her most purposeful and tactical. Her grunts and shrieks, which varied in length and volume with every shot, made the court feel like a boxing ring, but she wasn’t throwing wild haymakers the way she sometimes does. Knowing that Kvitova also wins with power rather than consistency, Sabalenka hit the ball hard, but she kept it well within the lines. Kvitova didn’t have time to wind up and slug the ball the way she likes, yet she wasn’t left with any other options.
“I wasn’t playing probably what I wanted to, but she didn’t give me anything to play my game,” Kvitova said.
Sabalenka has been driven in recent months by the recent death of her father, Sergey. “I’m doing it for him,” she says.
From the depths of that tragedy, the 21-year-old may reach new heights in 2020. If so, there may not be a limit to how high she climbs.