Novak Djokovic is throwing a serious challenge to not just his court adversaries but also tennis historians trying to assess his place in the game’s Hall of Fame
Rafael Nadal picks at a certain body part, Jayalalithaa does not. But there is a similarity between the two: beating them on their home turf is hard. If Tamil Nadu is Jayalalithaa’s turf, Nadal’s is clay. Beating him on clay has been the single most difficult assignment in men’s tennis since 2005, when he won his first French Open at age 19.
But such has been the touch and belief of Serbia’s Novak Djokovic in recent times that he has achieved this improbable mission twice in a week. Djokovic’s triumphs, first in Madrid and then in Rome, were based on the same weapons as Nadal—supreme court coverage, heavy baseline artillery and faith in intrinsic ability. His celebrations after the wins were different. In Madrid, after a Nadal backhand slice floated wide, Djokovic looked up at his jingoistic entourage with heaving lungs and slowly raised his arms. In Rome, he lay down on the court and let out maniacal roars, as if in a torture chamber. Back on his feet, he pumped his fist against his heart.
The losses to Djokovic, who has the looks and swagger of a young Robert De Niro, were Nadal’s first on clay in two years. Djokovic has beaten Nadal four times this season—proof that he is currently the best in the world. Has he won a Slam? Yes, the Australian Open. Beat- en Nadal, the world No 1? We’ve answered that. Beaten Federer, a strong opponent even in decline? Four times. Win-loss record for the year? Thirty-seven wins, no losses.
Robin Soderling, the French Open finalist of the past two years, says, “By beating Nadal on clay, he has proved that he is currently the best player in the world.”
India’s Somdev Devvarman knows Djokovic a bit. At his invitation, Devvarman had played a charity football match in Belgrade. Devvarman says, “His dominance this year has taken us aback. A streak like that is incredible, given the depth of men’s tennis.”
Djokovic’s elongated head reminds you of Supandi, that character from Tinkle comics. But unlike Supandi, Djokovic is street-smart. He has plugged gaps in his game and found some in his opponents’.
Though Djokovic has been a top player for a while and won his first Grand Slam in 2008, his serve and stamina were suspect. Last year, his serve broke down completely, leading to an embarrassing number of double faults.
“This is the crisis I guess everybody has to go through,” Djokovic said of his serving horrors after losing in the semifinals in Monte Carlo last year. “I know it’s going to come back. But at this moment, there is a little struggle.”
Physically, he was vulnerable and got a reputation for conceding matches. In 2005, he had surgery to correct nasal deviation, which was causing him breathing problems. Playing in heat was especially difficult for him. That problem remains. Nonetheless, his ability to recover from long matches has improved. In Rome, he recovered for the final against Nadal 17 hours after a draining three-set semifinal against Andy Murray. Conspiracy theorists question the reasons for this, but more of that later.
How did he overcome his service problems? Djokovic had an elaborate serving routine with a neurotic num- ber of ball tosses. “On the important points, I try to focus more and with that comes the ball bouncing. Sometimes 20 times, sometimes 30,” he once said, sounding like a helpless addict talking about a bender.
But when he sorted out his service action, he lost his mojo. So he reverted to the original. Sport is sometimes about the inexplicable. John McEnroe had back trouble. One day while practising, he served side-on, to reduce the strain on his back. He discovered that this action, in fact, imparted an extra zing to his serve. McEnroe stuck with it and a legendary service action was born. Tennis magazine called Pete Sampras’ serve the single most defining stroke of all time. How did he get that serve? Just like that. Sampras wrote in his autobiography that one fine day his serve just started to sizzle.
What about fitness? Apart from training, Djokovic stopped consuming gluten, present in foods like pasta, pizza and bread. He discovered he was allergic to these. Lean already, he became lighter (he weighs 80 kg; Nadal and Federer are 85 kg). In Rome, besides the quick recovery from the Murray semifinal, he blasted ground strokes at an average speed of 125 kmph, compared with 116 kmph last year. Conspiracy theorists laugh at the gluten claims and insinuate illegitimate reasons behind Djokovic’s new physical prowess (Nadal is their other prime suspect). But in the absence of proof, we have to go by results. Besides, Djokovic fans stoutly defend their man because he is also an entertainer. Djokovic’s impersonations of Maria Sharapova are a rage on YouTube. And he is the life of player parties at tournaments.
Djokovic is now difficult to beat because he has a mix of defensive and offensive ability. He can chase balls all around the court—against Murray, he returned three consecutive overheads —and deliver the knockout punch when he is in control of the point. His most lethal weapon is his backhand crosscourt. He creates great angles with it that beat the reach of even a speedy retriever like Nadal.
Djokovic’s service return has also improved. In Madrid, he almost broke Nadal at will. He held 12 breakpoints and conceded just six. He won 49 per cent of points while returning serve and conceded only 38 per cent.
Novak, 24, is the oldest son of Srdjan and Dijana, who own a pizza and pancake restaurant in Kopaonik, a ski resort in Serbia. He has two brothers, Marko, 19, and Djordje, 15. The Djokovic family and entourage, which also includes Novak’s coach Marian Vajda, are present at every big match of Novak’s. They are rabid and occasionally their hysteria lapses into crudity. After Djokovic defeated Federer in the 2008 Australian Open semifinal, Dijana said her son no longer saw the Swiss legend as the king and that the “The King Is Dead.” Federer won five more Grand Slams after that tournament. He defeated Djokovic eight more times. Dijana’s behaviour was criticised. Now the Djokovic clan is more careful about what it says. But the way Djokovic is playing, it’s hard to keep it down. Can’t blame them.