Love for country can inspire many to acts of bravery. For 23-year old Serbian and No. 3-ranked tennis player in the world, Novak Djokovic, it could be a life changer.
After leading his country to its first Davis Cup title—the biggest team nation tournament in men’s tennis—in December, Djokovic hasn’t looked back. He convincingly won January’s Australian Open—the year’s first Grand Slam—losing just one set in the process. He demolished world No. 2 Roger Federer in the semi-final and No. 4-ranked Andy Murray in the final, both in straight sets, and then won his third straight Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, again beating Federer in the final in February.
Serb express: Novak Djokovic.
This year, Djokovic has won all the 12 matches he has played so far, losing only three of the 32 sets he has played overall. Quite simply, the Serbian is the hottest men’s tennis player today.
Mind over matter
As Jon Wertheim, senior sports writer, Sports Illustrated, noted after his semi-final win over Federer in Melbourne, Djokovic is the third-best player in the world, “so the headline ‘Federer upset’ is a little funny”. But that’s unfortunately been the nature of men’s tennis for the past several years, the domination of Federer and No. 1 Rafael Nadal overshadowing every other player’s performance.
Djokovic has been in the top three since July 2007, only occasionally dropping to fourth, reaching the No. 2 spot momentarily in 2010. But being on the periphery wasn’t enough for him. He has been aware that getting past the Federer and Nadal barrier is no mean feat. Unless, of course, you get your head straight.
“Bottom line is that this (tennis) is a mental sport. Everybody is fit,” Djokovic said after the Australian Open final, indicating that matches are won in the mind.
Battling the heat better has been one of his game’s chief improvements, especially in places such as Melbourne where temperatures can touch 40-50 degrees Celsius. Thanks to his entourage, mainly comprising coach Marian Vajda and physiotherapist Miljan Amanovic, Djokovic managed to keep his focus on all things tennis. “You become more aware of the things that you should do and not do. I was spending too much energy on things I shouldn’t spend on,” he said in a post-match interview in Australia earlier this year.
An off-season of just two weeks (after the Davis Cup win) was all he needed to gear up for 2011, probably because the 3-2 victory over France (in front of his home crowd) in the Davis Cup stayed with him, inspiring him.
He told reporters in Melbourne: “It was very emotional, very historical. It was the chance of a lifetime for us to win a Davis Cup at home,” and described it as “the best period in my life so far”.
Getting in shape
A determined mind needs a willing body to back it, and Djokovic knows this all too well. “It’s not the will to win that makes a winner, it’s the will to prepare. I keep telling myself, as one wise man told me,” he says.
Though he won his first and only other Grand Slam title—coincidentally in Australia itself—in January 2008, this time Djokovic was different. “I feel like a more experienced player. I feel like a better player now than I was three years ago, because physically, I’m stronger, faster, and more motivated on the court. I know how to react in certain moments, and I know how to play on a big stage,” he said after beating Murray.
Apart from being more aggressive and developing a deeper understanding of Federer’s game to “get him out of the comfort zone”, Djokovic and Vajda worked on his serve. “I am a different player since the past one year—I have a serve,” he said, laughing, after beating Federer in Dubai. “Last year, the serve was not there and I was struggling…I was using a lot of energy. Now, I get some free points.” Statistics from ATPWorldTour.com show his average number of aces up from 4.2 in 2010 to 6.8 per match this year, while points won on his first serve have gone up from 71% to 77% between last year and the two months of 2011.
A good serve also enables Djokovic to be aggressive, take the momentum away from his opponents and dictate points. He’s beaten Federer twice this year already, without dropping a set. Improving footwork was also part of his disciplined regimen in the off-season; an important aspect if a player wishes to play seven straight best-of-five matches in a Grand Slam event.
An added testimony to Djokovic’s growing prowess came from world No. 41 Feliciano Lopez, who lost to Djokovic in the third round in Dubai: “Right now, Novak is in better shape than anybody in the world. Rafa (Nadal) is so fast as well; Murray is very, very fast. But probably right now, Novak is a little bit ahead.”
From the mischievous teenager more famous for his impersonations of peers to a serious challenger to the Nadal-Federer domination, Djokovic has come a long way. Will 2011 be his year? It’s worth watching.