There is no stopping Novak Djokovic. And that’s not true just of his irrepressible record of 57 wins out of 59 matches this year. The master impersonator resurfaced last week, mocking Maria Sharapova in a TV advert. But the gluten-free, ultra-professional, made sure that this time he got it right down to the ‘T’, sporting a pony-tailed blonde wig to complete the imitation.
The US Open, which starts on Monday, is the first Grand Slam that Djokovic will begin as the world No. 1. And despite the newfound elevated status, he has been able to retain the humour that first endeared, or in some cases offended, him to tennis followers.
Having gone through a period when the nickname ‘Djoker’ wasn’t always meant to flatter, Djokovic, the player, has upgraded himself, and stacked up numbers, forcing people to take him seriously. Playing in an era dominated by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal could have been an excuse to moderate success, but Djokovic didn’t use it.
“I didn’t focus on them,” he said, explaining the turnaround this season. “I focused on myself and improving my game and getting mentally stronger and believing in my qualities and ability and just maturing as a person of the court as well, knowing how to deal with pressure, expectations, and things that are part of our sport. I think that’s something that worked well for me in the past 12 months.”
There is something brutal in his desire that makes him a more human champion than his predecessors. He doesn’t have the artistry of Federer or the brute force of Nadal. And though it may still be early to put him in their league on the “greatness” quotient, Djokovic this year has somehow managed to raise the bar higher for men’s tennis on the basis of sheer hard work and perseverance.
Leading by example
Brilliance can only be pursued, but consistency can be copied.
It’s true that Djokovic has steamrolled competition this season. But he is also leading a generation that does not live in awe of Federer or fear of Nadal. By wresting control of the Grand Slams - the year began with talks of the Spaniard completing the ‘Rafa Slam’ - from the dominant duo he has erased a sense of resignation on the men’s tour.
The Serb may have won almost everything this season, but even others have found a way to chip at the Federer-Nadal aura of invincibility.
“I think next to Roger and Rafa and myself, there are more players coming up and being confident on the court,” he admitted. “You know, we didn’t get to see that maybe in the last couple of years. Now players believe they can win against top players.”
After losing to Djokovic in the semifinal of this year’s Australian Open, Federer, once again, was asked whether it’s an end of an era. The Swiss replied, once again, with characteristic confidence that, “We’ll talk about this six months later.” Six months have gone, and the world No. 1 and few of the emerging stars, have only cemented those fears.
The frown on Nadal’s face has only deepened with each of the five defeats in the finals at Djokovic’s hands this season. But burnt fingers and injury concerns apart the 25-year-old knows the growing power of the challengers.
By his standards, Nadal has had a weak season, winning only three titles and his form going into the US Open, hasn’t been encouraging.
Even though Djokovic began his Grand Slam run at the 2008 Australian Open and had been the third best player in the world for what seemed like eternity, nothing had prepared the tennis world for the intensity with which he hit this year. It was the new improved Novak, version 2.0.
Those who have followed his career closely believe leading his country to their first Davis Cup win in November last year allowed Djokovic to have that mental leap. “After the win, I was full of life, full of energy, eager to come back to the tennis court, eager to play some more, win some other tournaments,” Djokovic said. “In a sentence: I lost my fear. I believed in my abilities more than ever.”
Come 2011, he cut out pizzas from his diet and went gluten free, tweaked his serve enough so that he didn’t have any visible weakness in his game anymore. Always a hard-worker on court, Djokovic’s retrieving game is even leaving Nadal trailing it its wake.
He has won 39% of the return games and 88% of his service games this season: two more stats that lay evidence to his dominance. Not surprisingly, he has been constantly compared to PlayStation this season. “What he’s done this year is like XBox.” Andy Roddick said.
Talking the walk
Having proven he’s a champion, Djokovic talks like one now. “The will to win, motivation that keeps me going every day,” he said of his success this season. “I hate losing, so I need to win.”
Apart from a semifinal defeat to Federer in the French Open, Djokovic’s only other loss this season came against Andy Murray in Cincinnati last week, when he had to retire from the final due to shoulder fatigue. That ailment may provide a small window of opportunity for the others to get past him when the US Open, where he is a clear favourite, gets underway. Having lived with the moniker ‘Djoker’ almost all his professional life, he has well-earned a new one ‘Djoggernaut’.