Sunday, July 3, 2011

Djokovic: A Work Of Spirit

An inspired Novak Dkojovic defeated Rafael Nadal 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 to claim his first Wimbledon title today.

It would be impossible to briefly sum up the monumental strides that Novak Djokovic has made, both as a tennis player and as a person, in the last 8 months. Still, we ought to try. And perhaps when we do try, each of us might find a way to glean a bit of magic from the man who has stormed the tennis world in dramatic fashion in 2011.

"What is it that's made you virtually unbeatable this year?" asked a genuinely curious John McEnroe, in a post-match interview with the newly-crowned Wimbledon champion today.

Djokovic smiled. He must have been thinking: 'Ah, where to start, and how to not sound too corny?' Then he spoke: "There's a small percentage of improvement in a couple of shots in my game," Djokovic began, "like serve for example, maybe a little bit better forehand coming to the net, good return."

Fair enough. There's no denying that everything Djokovic has done in 2011 has been better than ever, but deep down we all know that the man's torrid 2011 is about so much more than a small improvement in a few strokes. Yes, he's been striking the ball with gusto, opening up the court with ridiculous angles and moving like a gazelle. But still, there's something more, something intangible that Djokovic now possesses, and it's been playing a large role in all his recent success.

"There was no major changes," continued Djokovic, in response to McEnroe's question, and finally getting to the crux of the matter. "It's just I think that I matured mentally and I believe on the court that I can win against Nadal, Federer, Murray -- the big guys in the big tournaments -- and now it's really coming true."

And that is the essence of this magical spell for Djokovic: belief.

For Djokovic, it's not simply about hitting the ball -- he's always known how to do that -- or constructing points, or even his increased stamina. His resurgence has been fueled by something bigger, something all-encompassing. His journey to the top of tennis has been less about x's and o's (or gluten or the lack of gluten) than it has has been about resolve, stick-to-itiveness, conquering demons and overcoming hurdles.

Yes, Djokovic's rise to the top of men's tennis provides a perfect tactical guide for how to be a champion -- the technique is there, the flexibility too -- but none of the mind-blowing tennis that Djokovic produced today would have been possible without a certain spiritual alacrity.

Djokovic's greatest improvement, more than the flexibility that has led to his Cirque Du Soleil poses at the baseline or any of his newfound pop on the serve, has come from within. That big bloody beating device inside his chest, the one he pounds mercilessly while communing with his player's box during matches: the heart.

And from the heart comes belief. Djokovic had it throughout today's tense affair, even as he struggled with a determined Nadal, who started to find his groove in the third and fourth sets.

Surprisingly, if anyone lacked confidence in today's final, it was Nadal. "I was a little bit too nervous, probably at 5-4 in the first set," said the 10-time Grand Slam champion, "and probably 4-3 of the last set. At that moment the match was there -- I had chances to be there and to be playing the fifth right now."

Those moments of nervousness for Nadal were moments of inspiration for Djokovic.

Long rallies, normally the domain of Nadal, went to Djokovic on crucial points time and time again. Djokovic won 16 of 25 points that went 10 or more strokes, but more importantly, he won three consecutive long rallies to go from 0-30 down in the 10th game of the first set to holding set point.

He converted the set point, and from that point on it was his match to win or lose.

As Nadal mounted a serious charge in the third and fourth sets, Djokovic once again called upon his belief to get him over the finish line. He secured the decisive break in the fourth set after a 14-stroke rally, then used his first serve-and-volley play of the match at 30-all in the final game to secure a look at a match point.

He would only need one look. Nadal's backhand sailed long and the Serb fell to his back on the grass, celebrating the most coveted title in all of tennis.

The look on his face was priceless, but it was not a look of surprise. Djokovic is a man who knows he belongs at the top of tennis now.

Now that he's beaten Rafael Nadal five consecutive times on three different surfaces, and become the only man besides Federer to defeat the Spaniard in a Grand Slam final, that fact is pretty hard to deny.

Djokovic can look at the stats to get his confidence for the hardcourt season, or he can keep doing what he's been doing all year -- looking within for inspiration.

Either way he should be fine.


  1. Just the look on his face when he lifted the trophy was enough for me - like a child who's discovered something truly wonderful and exciting. Beautiful!

  2. Like I said, it's all in his head man.

  3. Congrats to Novak; he, Rafa, and Roger have dominated tennis for the last six years. I am fairly new to tennis; I've only been watching for six years now. Has anyone ever seen such sustained dominance by three players? BTW, I feel for Andy Murray; it doesn't seem like he'll ever crack the top three.

  4. Bravo, Novak! Here's to the underdog winning through a combination of hard work and perseverance! Trenchant analysis of the long road he's traveled to get here, Fan Child.


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