Novak Djokovic hasn’t captured 17 Grand Slam tournaments and 80 ATP Tour titles altogether without being a thorough, top-of-the-line professional. He is unforgiving of himself in the early rounds of majors, not wanting to waste energy, trying to make certain he moves through his contests as seamlessly as possible, hoping to hone his game round by round.
Djokovic is his own harshest critic, a fascinatingly fierce competitor and a perfectionist through and through. He is clearly a champion who enjoys practicing his craft. Playing the game at a lofty level gives him immense pleasure, but the court is his place of work, and he takes it all very seriously.
In his first round US Open meeting with Damir Dzumhur, Djokovic was not entirely satisfied with his performance. This despite a 6-1, 6-4, 6-1 victory in which he was in command across the first and third sets—but the second set turned into a much tougher tussle than the Serbian wanted. It took him nearly an hour to win it. He was often dismayed, fleetingly infuriated with himself, and understandably agitated with his own play. In turn, Djokovic realized that his buddy Dzumhur is a cagey competitor, versatile off his backhand side with the mixture of the two-hander with the one-handed slice, able to serve-and-volley selectively, and one of the most mobile players in all of tennis.
But at the same time, Djokovic was never unduly worried as he began his quest for a fourth US Open crown. Although he was comfortably ahead in the scoreline during that first set, he did have to fight off break points in two of his service games. Yet Dzumhur unwisely elected to slug it out with Djokovic from the backcourt, playing right into the top seed’s hands. In 23 efficient minutes, Djokovic sealed that opening set.
When Dzumhur was broken at love to trail 2-1 in the second set, the 28-year-old Bosnian seemed deflated. He lost that game at love on consecutive double faults. But he broke right back for 2-2, held on for 3-2 and pressed his adversary hard in the sixth game. A disgruntled Djokovic fended off three break points in a four-deuce game before reaching 3-3. Dzumhur retaliated by fighting off five break points and holding on in an eight-deuce game to lead 4-3.
“I thought I started well with a set and a break lead and then things got complicated,” Djokovic later told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi. “I lost my focus and he started missing less. He started putting some really good variety in his game. He is one of the quickest players on the tour. He gets a lot of balls back. It was anybody’s game through that set.”
He wasn't stretched to the limit on Monday, but Djokovic was made to work at times. (Getty Images)
Djokovic served somewhat precariously at 30-30 in the eighth game, but bore down hard and took the next two points for 4-4. Dzumhur’s mental fatigue was apparent as he lost his serve again at 15 in the ninth game on another double fault. The underdog battled diligently in the following game, but Djokovic served it out, sealing the set on his third set point after nearly wasting a 40-15 lead.
The third set was never in doubt. Djokovic opened up off both wings, served with more precision and dissected Dzumhur, who was seen by the trainer following the third game after suffering with an abdominal issue. Djokovic closed out the match by collecting nine of the last ten games.
“I was pleased to close out the second set 6-4 and then I stepped it up probably a couple of levels in the third,” said Djokovic, now 24-0 in 2020.
Asked about why he was yelling at himself and venting toward his coaching corner, Djokovic answered, “That’s the intensity, obviously. You care about winning a tennis match. You are a professional. If I didn’t care I wouldn’t be here.
“I play with a lot of intensity and try to bring a lot of energy on the court. Sometimes it’s not super positive but I try to bounce back from that. ... I had a terrific week last week winning the tournament so I am obviously feeling confident about myself.”
Djokovic and Sampras at an exhibition during match during the 2019 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. (Getty Images)
Watching Djokovic on Monday night, I wondered if Pete Sampras might have been following the proceedings from his home in California. When Sampras completed his career by winning his fifth US Open title 18 years ago, he was the all-time leader in Grand Slam singles title among men, with 14. No one could have envisioned Roger Federer (20 titles), Rafael Nadal (19) and Djokovic (17) surpassing Sampras in such a short period of time at the game’s landmark events. Yet Sampras admires that trio immensely for what they have done since he left the game.
I have written a new biography called Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited, which is officially released today. (You can purchase the book on Amazon here.) In the book, Sampras praises Djokovic as a person and player effusively—and vice versa. Djokovic idolized Sampras as a young boy getting immersed in the game.
Speaking of Djokovic’s game and what it would have been like to compete against the Serbian, the Swiss and the Spaniard, Sampras says:
“I think Novak in a lot of ways would probably give me the most problems because he has by far the best return of all time. I always said Andre Agassi’s return was the best and his return was great. But you could get it by him. With Novak, I would have a hard time getting my serve by him because he is just a better athlete than Andre. Novak would give me a hard time because he hits such a good, deep ball and returns so well. I would have to work hard to hold serve against Novak.
“It would be interesting to see the length of his return. I have never seen anything like that. It is aggressive and he has that stretch on his forehand and his athletic ability. I would try to get in on his second serve and try to do something with that, but his flexibility, stretch and reach are unlike anything I have ever seen.”
Sampras looked at an imaginary matchup with Djokovic from his own standpoint as well, saying, “I feel with my serve-and-volley game I would be in all of these matches against all three of these guys. There is nobody in the past or present I feel I couldn’t play with.”
Djokovic won't be able to defend his Wimbledon title in 2020, but he could still sweep the season's Grand Slam tournaments. (Getty Images)
Yet Sampras is a great admirer of the prodigious players who have followed in his footsteps. He watched large portions of the 2019 Djokovic-Federer Wimbledon final with his family at home, and came away from viewing that epic drained and almost in awe of what he had witnessed.
As he told me in the book:
“Roger and Novak are two of the greatest players of all time and they were playing great at the same time in the biggest tournament in the world with so much at stake. It is rare in sports that everything aligns, and this just aligned. It was one of the best matches I have ever seen and an incredible win for Novak. The level of tennis was through the roof and they both handled themselves great after the match, which they always do. I would have been happy for either one of them to win and I was going to feel badly for either one as well.”
Sampras does not simply admire Djokovic as a player; he also holds him in high regard as a person, and has offered the Serbian advise from time to time over the past decade. Djokovic is appreciative of the times he and Sampras have crossed paths.
“Pete was always so good at being focused on what he needed to do and simplifying things, while I am the kind of character who likes to explore different things off the court and go deep in trying to understand the essence of my tennis life,” Djokovic told me for the book. “I am always trying to learn and to constantly evolve, but sometimes that gets me to a place where maybe I lose the ground under my feet.
“Every time I speak with Pete, even if he doesn’t say a word, just his being there, the message resonates because it is coming from him.”