Why the lean and mean Novak Djokovic of 2011 has tennis running scared
There was a brief passage of time when Novak Djokovic lived up to his nickname. The Djoker. Not because he was doing the life-and-soul-of-the-party thing, the impressions, the running commentary, the often profligate banter. No. Of course, it was very funny for a while. A breath of fresh air. But it was after the initial love affair, when all the messing about got sort of old, the mimicking dull, the whining and moaning about this injury or that crowd a little tedious. Yes, he could play ridonkadonk tennis (when he wanted), but quite often, he was a bit of a joke. Get on with it Nole, you might have thought.
The Novak Djokovic that defeated Rafael Nadal to win the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells yesterday was about as far removed from that joke as you could possibly get.Perhaps it was a literal rush of blood to the brain after shaving all his hair off when he helped Serbia win the Davis Cup last November. Perhaps he just grew up a bit. But, ever since he stepped off a plane in Perth on New Year’s Eve, barely a day’s rest afforded to his weary limbs, Djokovic has been a man transformed.
Yes, he still laughs hard, he jokes hard, he even tweets hard (and hilariously so). But he also works hard, thinks hard, and most importantly, he plays hard. In each of his five previous finals against Rafael Nadal, Djokovic has almost stopped before he started. As if to say – “Look, yes I know Rafa is so much better than me, so I’ll just play along, and I won’t really be able to do anything about it.”
Trailing the world No.1 by a set in front of 15,000 fanatic fans, that might well have happened again. Show me any player who always knows what to do on the wrong end of Nadal’s angry looking eyebrows, especially in a final. It’s just such a lot of effort trying to find a battering ram big enough to out-muscle the Mallorcan.
But whether it was that Nadal blinked, or Djokovic suddenly let loose, the great gig in the sky shifted the Serb’s way. Reeling off two breaks in a row to take the second set, Djokovic had Nadal completely befuddled. The Spaniard’s much-improved serve, the shot that won him the US Open last year, disappeared. Or perhaps he was so afraid of Novak crushing it like a mashed potato that he lost the will to hit it.
Two breaks in a row became three, then four, as the two-time Slam champ wriggled his leaner and meaner frame around every shot and spin filtering through from the other end of the court. Bossing Rafa? It’s been unheard of for almost a year.
Staring down a 1-5 third-set crevasse, Nadal held serve to shove the axe back into Djokovic’s hands. ‘Chop me down yourself,’ he might have been saying. It is in this situation that the Spaniard so often manages to sneak under his opponent’s fingernails. Make them think ‘God, I’m going to beat Nadal.’ The rabbit in headlights effect. And nine times out of 10, Rafa’s given a way back in. But Djokovic knows all about this. Serving out in as emphatic a manner as that with which he rips his shirts off (all too often, if you ask me), the Serb threw his head back, and let the cloudy Palm Springs skies have the full force of his vocal chords.
Not for him the lacksadaisical ‘Oh I’m so good’ smirk. It was quite an outpouring. An angry, aggressive, satisfied reaction. He really wanted it, he really worked for it, and he got it. Perhaps that’s his epiphany. Djokovic has become addicted to good old-fashioned working and winning.
The result is a run of 18 consecutive wins without loss in 2011 – the best start to a men’s tennis season since Ivan Lendl notched up 25-0 in 1986. Seven successful matches in Melbourne, five in Dubai, and six in Indian Wells. Add to those the three (admittedly round robin) wins at the Hopman Cup in Perth, and you have 21. Add to those the two victories during the Davis Cup final last November, and Nole has himself a 23-0 winning streak since his last loss, to Roger Federer in the semi-finals of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London.
He’s owned Federer on the three occasions they’ve met since. The first, in the Melbourne semi-finals, was some of the best tennis Djokovic has ever let flow from his racket. The second, in Dubai, was less jaw-shattering, but equally comprehensive. The third, in Indian Wells, was a little more gritty, a little less perfect, and far tighter, but a win nonetheless.
Then there’s the Australian Open final against Andy Murray. It’s no secret that it was not, alas, Murray’s finest hour. But to give Djokovic his due, he never lent the Scot a second with which to begin slicing and dicing, dinking and diving. His court coverage was phenomenal. His aggression unbounded. It was a champion’s performance.
And Nadal? The ultimate test, perhaps. It is not totally bonkers to ruminate over the fact that defeat to Nadal in the US Open final might have given Djokovic the necessary jab in the backside to seek a higher level. It seems he has found it.
Admittedly, although Indian Wells welcomed a record 350,086 fans through its palm tree promenades this year, it was not a Grand Slam, and not a Grand Slam final. It was also Nadal’s first tournament in competition since journalists blubbed over his untimely exit in the Melbourne quarter-finals. He was not at his absolute snarling, spinning-over-the-head best. But he is still the world No.1. And it was still Djokovic’s first win against him in a tournament final.
No matter what happens in Miami next week, the second of the year’s 10-day tournaments that is known by many as the ‘fifth Grand Slam,’ it is fair to submit that the first hard-court stretch of 2011 belongs to Djokovic. Who knows, he may even join Pete Sampras (1994), Andre Agassi (2001) and Roger Federer (2006) in holding the Australian Open – Indian Wells- Miami triple.
What is more fascinating to ponder on is what comes next. Nadal won everything there was to win on clay last year. Djokovic won…nothing. He made one semi-final and the rest were quarters. Not bad for a hard-baller. But if Rafa stumbles on the dirt, for whatever reason, the No.1 ranking will be calling out to Djokovic like the Ring of Power.
Not that we can forget about Federer, licking his wounds in what is possibly the twilight of his career, which, if anything, makes him more dangerous. There’s Murray too, still seeking the je ne sais quoi to leap up as Djokovic has done. And of course, Juan Martin Del Potro, Robin Soderling, Tomas Berdych, and so on and so forth.
Djokovic will need a burn at some point. But until that comes, there’s not a lot that’s going wrong.Indian Wells, Novak Djokovic, Sport, Sports, Tennis
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter