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Steve Flink: Djokovic Searching for Balance

3/2/2009 1:23:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Why does it seem as if Novak Djokovic is riding on a perpetual roller-coaster of emotions? What is it about this enigmatic young man that causes him to drift so frequently from supreme confidence to the depths of insecurity? How can it be that he can’t find a more fortifying inner balance after competing in the upper regions of his sport for the past three seasons?

I wish I had the answers to those questions, but I don’t. When he is in a positive frame of mind and performing at his zenith, Djokovic can be a joy to observe. At his best, the 21-year-old Serbian is a great tennis player and a gifted shot maker, a ferocious competitor and an outstanding match player, a fellow who knows what he wants and seemingly understands how to go about achieving it. When the sun is shining through the windows of his mind, Djokovic can orchestrate matches from the back of the court with a purpose and capability few players can equal.

But on those darker afternoons when he is afflicted by unnecessary self doubts, Djokovic is a much lesser character. He fights himself, advertises his distress, wanders in an out of an agitated state. At these times, Djokovic is not enjoyable to watch in the least because it is painfully apparent that he is not doing himself justice. He is simply taking relatively small problems and compounding them, inviting trouble when it could be avoided, giving adversaries the luxury of knowing that he can be his own worst enemy.

This past week, however, the best Djokovic emerged again when he captured his first tournament of 2009 in Dubai. The triumph was much needed and highly beneficial for the world No. 3, who had not started his 2009 campaign in style. He had appeared in a pair of ATP Tour events leading up to the defense of his Australian Open title, and did not fare well in either. In Brisbane, Djokovic was upended by the promising Ernests Gulbis, and then the next week in Sydney he was ushered out by Jarkko Niemenen in the semifinals.

I could understand why Djokovic got caught off guard by Gulbis, who has the firepower, the imagination and the stroke virtuosity to beat anyone in the world on a given day. But the loss to Niemenen was baffling. Djokovic, who could have at least temporarily taken away the No. 2 world ranking from Roger Federer had he toppled Niemenen, lost to a player he should have handled with ease. From there, he played well on his way to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open.

In the last eight, he faced Andy Roddick. After both men played a high caliber and intense first set which Djokovic captured in a tie-break, the Serbian could not keep pace with his better conditioned opponent. In stifling heat, with the sun beating down fiercely, Djokovic wilted. By the middle of the set, he looked almost entirely spent. An encouraged Roddick--- sensing correctly that he had the match well under control--took the second and third sets, went up a break in the fourth, and then Djokovic surrendered the match and retired, a victim of heat exhaustion.

That was not the way he would have wanted to lose his chance to garner a second Australian Open title in a row. It set a bad tone. Could he have played on and finished the fourth set? My guess is that he could have done just that. But, whatever the circumstances, he had bowed out somewhat tamely, and was thus denied the chance to meet Roger Federer in a rematch of the 2008 semifinal. In his next tournament appearance, Djokovic went to the semifinals of Marseille, but was ousted by Jo Wilfried Tsonga, the fourth straight time he had lost to the athletic Frenchman after gaining a victory in their first head-to-head showdown in the final of the 2008 Australian Open.

So things were not going terribly well for Djokovic as he headed into Dubai. There had been a good deal of talk about the racket switch he made at the start of 2009; critics wondered about the degree of difficulty he was having making that adjustment. Skeptics were beginning to question whether Djokovic might be losing ground in the battle for supremacy at the top of the men’s game. While he remained No. 3 in the world rankings, most authorities have felt that Andy Murray was now the better player.

Surely, Djokovic is well aware of the whispers out there among his colleagues and in the court of public opinion. He clearly recognizes that this is a crucial stretch ahead as he tries to reenergize his game and reassert his place in the sport. Another loss in Dubai would have dampened his spirits considerably after his slow start to the still young campaign. Djokovic realized he had to get moving with so much of consequence around the corner.

In his second round contest against Jan Hernych at Dubai, Djokovic was down a break early in the third and final set, but rallied gamely for the victory. In the semifinals, he took on Gilles Simon, the remarkable Frenchman who progressed from No. 29 in the world at the end of 2007 all the way up to No. 7 at the conclusion of 2008. Simon---- who had his best major yet as a quarterfinalist at the Australian Open in January--- is one tough man to beat. Twice last year, he toppled Roger Federer in hard fought contests at Toronto and Shanghai, coming from a break down in the final set of both matches. In Madrid last fall, he struck back audaciously from 2-4 in the final set to overcome Rafael Nadal.

Moreover, Simon had pushed Djokovic to the brink of defeat when they met in the semifinals of the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai. Djokovic escaped 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, but just barely. In Dubai, the two men had another bruising skirmish which was a virtual replica of their Shanghai duel. This time, Djokovic, despite an inauspicious start and a wayward forehand in the early stages, needed to come from behind again to win 3-6, 7-5, 7-5. 

I watched that match and the final of Dubai on television, and admired how Djokovic persevered. Simon worked him awfully hard, and the Frenchman displayed a tenacity and temerity which have become the trademarks of his game. He seldom wavers, and Djokovic discovered what so many others have found out when they take on Simon: the Frenchman can absorb pace as well as anyone, and it can be an exercise in futility to try overwhelming him solely with power. Changing pace and playing with variety is essential in eclipsing Simon.

Djokovic essentially beat himself in the opening set by going for too much and playing almost entirely into Simon’s hands. In the second set, Djokovic was plainly uneasy and full of angst, but he worked his way through it impressively. At 3-3, he was down 0-30, but collected four points in a row with controlled aggression. At 4-4, he fell behind 0-30 again, finding himself theoretically six points from defeat. But he got out of that jam with some clever second serves, kicking his delivery up high to Simon’s two-handed backhand to elicit mistakes. Simon did not like having to create his own pace.

Djokovic had overcome his worst anxiety, and would not look back. He broke Simon at 5-6 with a sparkling forehand winner behind the Frenchman. The Serbian had a letdown at the start of the final set, falling behind 1-3. Serving in the fifth game, he was twice taken to deuce, knowing full well he could not afford to get broken again. He maintained his composure there to hold on and then broke back for 3-3. With Simon serving to save the match at 5-6, Djokovic delivered the knockout blow. He provoked two low forehand volley errors from Simon to reach match point, and finished it all off by unleashing a superb inside-out forehand that set up an easy smash into an open court.

Having survived that arduous clash in the semifinals, Djokovic took his game up a notch in the final against David Ferrer, the Spaniard who had resided at No. 4 in the world at the end of 2007. Once again, Djokovic had to iron out a few wrinkles in his game along the way, but overall his play against Ferrer in the title match was decidedly smoother. Djokovic served for the first set at 5-3 but connected with only one of four first serves and was broken at love. An obstinate Ferrer got back to 5-5.

From that juncture on, Djokovic raised his level substantially, and Ferrer could no longer stay with him. Djokovic swept five games in a row to close out the first set and establish a 3-0 second set lead. In that nearly immaculate span, Djokovic won 21 of 28 points and was virtually unstoppable. He moved on to 4-2, 40-15 but inexplicably made consecutive unforced errors off his two-hander. Ferrer broke back when Djokovic erred badly off the forehand, but the Serbian did not despair.

At 3-4, 15-40, Ferrer cracked, double faulting that game away. Nevertheless, the Spaniard had a break point when Djokovic served for the match at 5-3. He went for broke off his sporadically brilliant forehand, but was way off the mark. Two points later, Djokovic challenged when his first serve down the T was called wide, and joyously watched as the replay went his way. The serve had clipped the center service line for an ace. The match was over. Djokovic, a 7-5, 6-3 winner, was on the board in 2009.

It must be pointed out that Nadal, Federer and the defending champion Andy Roddick all pulled out of Dubai for different reasons and Djokovic was spared the demanding task of potentially playing Andy Murray when the world No. 4 defaulted his quarterfinal to Richard Gasquet. It all broke for Djokovic last week, but the fact remains that he took complete advantage of it and earned a well deserved tournament victory in the end.

The view here is that Djokovic will now approach the big hard courts events at Indian Wells and Miami with optimism and conviction. He is the defending champion at Indian Wells, and he was victorious in Miami the previous year. Djokovic needs to at least reach the final in one of those two prestigious events, which would carry him into the clay court reason in a good frame of mind. I would not be surprised if Djokovic--- a man who is so thoroughly at home on hard courts--- comes away with a title in either California or Florida.

This is a critical year for Djokovic. He made immense strides in 2007. After finishing 2006 at No. 16 in the world, he leaped to No. 3 after winning five tournaments and reaching his first Grand Slam tournament final at the U.S. Open. He then secured the Australian Open crown in January of 2008, and followed up by not only winning Indian Wells but also coming through at the Italian Open in Rome on the clay. I thought he was going to make a serious run at the No. 1 world ranking.

But two significant things happened. Rafael Nadal burst into the finest stretch of his career, winning eight of ten tournaments at one stage and garnering a fourth consecutive French Open title along with his first Wimbledon crown and a gold medal at the Olympic Games. Nadal distanced himself from everyone and finished the year unassailably at No. 1 in the world. As for Djokovic, after his win in Rome, he was reasonably consistent but he did not win another tournament until the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai.

That was uplifting after so many disappointments in the middle and latter stages of 2008. He nearly moved past Federer to No. 2 in the world for the year, but fell agonizingly short of that goal. Nadal did not play in Shanghai and Federer did not make it to the semifinals. Murray exerted so much emotional and physical energy defeating Federer in a compelling round robin match that he had nothing left when he met Nikolay Davydenko in the semifinals, and then Djokovic meticulously picked apart the Russian in the championship match. It was a tournament win well earned, but Djokovic did not have to confront his three biggest rivals.

As I pointed out earlier, Djokovic had a lackluster start this year. But--- at least for the time being--- he has remedied the situation. It is up to Djokovic to avoid any slumps from now through the U.S. Open. He has to give himself every conceivable chance to win his second career major in 2009, to build on the foundation he built a year ago, to make the most of himself.

No matter how well he plays for the rest of the year, Djokovic will have his work cut out for him. Nadal has won three of the last four Grand Slam events and is entirely comfortable at No. 1. Federer is determined to tie and eventually break Pete Sampras’s record of 14 Grand Slam championships and has a ton of big match experience. In my view, Murray has an excellent chance to win either Wimbledon of the U.S. Open---- as long as he recovers his full health after his lingering problems with a virus.

On top of that, Djokovic has to worry about his losing streak against Tsonga. Be that as it may, I expect to see the Serbian in the final of at least one major this year. It will take a monumental effort on his part to win one of the big ones. But my sincere hope is that Novak Djokovic finds that emotional balance, rediscovers his old exuberant ways on the court, and gives himself the best possible chance to succeed. 

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