The Limits of Control

Why Novak Djokovic is at his best when he’s at his worst.
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Photo via Mark Howard Photography on Flickr

Imagine if, after the First Battle of the Marne, the Allies and Central Powers had girded their loins for the long trench battle ahead, only for the United States to surprise everyone with an all-out assault that overwhelmed both forces and turned Europe into a collection of American puppet regimes. It’s a ridiculous premise, of course, but also roughly analogous to what happened in 2011 when Novak Djokovic overtook Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer to become Supreme Ruler of men’s tennis. His dominance didn’t come out of nowhere—he won the Australian Open in 2008 and had been a regular in Grand Slam semifinals for years—yet it was expected he’d spend at least a little while longer as third-best and champion-in-waiting. It wasn’t supposed to be his time, but he cut the strings of fate himself and made it his anyway. After years of being weaned on a Federer-Nadal rivalry that showed no signs of slowing up, Djokovic’s greatness came as such a surprise that only the immediate reaction—erupting into applause or conceding any once-held doubts in dumbfounded silence—seemed the right one. And yet it was hard to know how to feel about a champion so unsubtle in his ascent.

Perhaps, though, that uncertain response to his indisputable achievement has something to do with the nature of Djokovic’s game. If the description above paints a picture of Djokovic as some kind of impudent young upstart, then his game evinces a level of point-winning logic typically associated with a grizzled veteran. He wins like a specially engineered victory machine, ruthlessly pulverizing his opponents until they submit. It’s neither a defensive or offensive style, but some unholy hybrid of the two. If his game has a weakness, I haven’t seen it. He’s so good, in fact, that his victories can seem perfunctory, his structural advantage so apparent from the get-go that the rest of the match becomes a slightly more formal version of tennis garbage time.

To put it another way, Djokovic exerts a level of control over a match that hasn’t been seen since Roger Federer at his peak. Federer was also described in terms of tennis robotics, but their styles are wildly different. While Fed showed a modicum of emotion on the court and seemed to care about little else other than the point at hand, he played with a peerless creativity that exhibited some higher form of tennis intelligence, as if he were making up a new logic of victory from point to point. Federer wasn’t a robot, but rather a member of the gilded aristocracy—best exhibited by his simultaneously ridiculous and warranted cardigans and blazers at Wimbledon—deigning to come down to the courts and show the craftsmen what real talent looks like. His ethereality made everyone he played look startlingly earthbound.

Djokovic, by contrast, is very much of the same world as his opponents; he’s just a better version—the ideal—of what they aspire to be. The typical Djokovic point is preposterously logical, built on a serve strong enough to set the terms of the point (or a return that achieves the same effect, as the case may be) followed by a succession of deep and unfathomably strong groundstrokes placed as far into the corners as possible. Unlike Federer’s has-anyone-ever-tried-this-before strokes of genius, Djokovic’s creativity is measured by the success of tactical choices like slight changes of angle. What sets him apart isn’t exactly what he does, but that he never stops doing it. The sheer physicality required to maintain his level of consistency over an entire match, let alone a tournament or calendar year, is unparalleled in the sport right now. It’s tennis as played by a Terminator: he absolutely will not stop, ever, until the opposition is dead. That he rarely falters while doing it only makes what he accomplishes more impressive.

Rafael Nadal is the only other player on the tour who can come close to matching that level of physical endurance, and so it’s not terribly surprising that they faced off Sunday in the Australian Open, the third consecutive time they’ve constituted the final of a major. However, despite being firmly established as one of the best players ever, Nadal’s fitness manifests itself less like Djokovic’s impervious health than as part of the world’s most elaborate test of valor. As Nadal runs from one end of the court to another, he pushes himself to the brink of his own capabilities as if to prove that they don’t exist in the first place. When he’s at his best, Nadal sets up a similar test for his opponent to which they simply cannot measure up. In their 2011 matchups, Djokovic had already reached that point by the time Nadal got there; he’s the only player who can beat him at his own game. Against Djokovic, Nadal must find another way to survive.

And so on Sunday we were met with the bizarre sight of the best defensive player of his era (maybe ever) forcing himself to work the offensive early, trying to steal points with a bigger-than-usual serve or risky angle on a forehand winner. It was effective, with Nadal breaking Djokovic in the fifth game to take a 3-2 lead. Djokovic regained that break several games later to lock things up at 4-4, but another Nadal break gave him a 6-5 lead and clear path to the set. Regardless of Rafa’s late break, Djokovic clearly gained strength as the set progressed, making it clear to Nadal that he wasn’t having an off day, just one that took a little longer to get going than usual.

There were obvious reasons for Djokovic’s slow start, chief among them his marathon five-set match against Andy Murray on Friday. No matter the explanation, though, what was startling about it was how a player whose game rests on holding the upper hand had to work his way into gaining it. It was a necessary process for an athlete who, like a small household appliance or children’s toy, comes into most matches with no assembly required. The monolith didn’t just appear out of nowhere; it came into being before our eyes.

Based on that first-set progression, it came as little surprise that Djokovic took control of the next two sets (6-4 and 6-2, by score) to reestablish the dominance he’d held over Nadal in their two major-final meetings last year. Djokovic sent Nadal from corner to corner with enough slices to turn the monotony into something more like sadism. Nadal’s test of will was rendered hapless; he was less the valiant knight than the protagonist in a Greek tragedy, trying his hardest to defy a fate that had been decided long ago.

It was also around this time that I started to check out mentally, and not just because it was roughly 3:30 in the morning in San Francisco. A Djokovic victory is almost always impressive but rarely inspirational, akin to watching someone recreate a Jackson Pollock painting drop by drop from the world’s longest instruction manual. As a physical accomplishment, it’s amazing. As a piece of drama, or really just athletic narrative, it’s a little dull. If Federer finds new ways to rethink tennis geometry on every point and Nadal conceives of the basic act of running to one side of the court as emotional expression, then Djokovic exhibits very little in the way of discovery from moment to moment. For full appreciation as an athlete in a state of continual self-improvement, he requires the right context. Like Pete Sampras before him, he’s a champion who needs someone to match his success in order to become transcendent.

It’s hardly controversial to claim that legendary rivalries or thrilling matches make athletes more exciting; many memorable Nadal-Federer contests prove as much, and those guys are plenty great when they’re not playing each other. It’s rare, though, for the best player in a sport to seem so utterly mechanical in domination and come across as more amazing in crisis. It’s when Djokovic loses control that he becomes most animated and the competitive drive that allows him to dominate so often manifests itself most clearly. When he’s down, or on the wrong side of momentum, Djokovic gets to shots with the overexerted effort of Nadal and produces winners with a near-Federerian level of creativity. It’s not that Djokovic is incapable of being exciting when in control of a match, but that he chooses the path of least resistance. The same qualities come out when he’s down—they just become easier to read as the efforts of a man doing everything he can to turn the tide of the match. The unbeatable favorite and plucky underdog are revealed as the same person thrust into different situations.

The saving grace of Sunday’s match, then, was that Nadal came back in the fourth when he seemed finished, for it allowed both men to present the best aspects of themselves. For the Spaniard, that meant he pushed himself in ways we haven’t seen since the glory days of Federer at Wimbledon, when Nadal (particularly in 2007) made matches closer than they anyone had expected them to be simply because he appeared to want it more. For Djokovic, that meant playing from beyond, as described above, but also thriving in uncertainty in a way he hasn’t in quite some time. Djokovic’s first-set reestablishment was fundamentally an issue of getting into a match over the course of several games, a tough but by no means unheard-of task. What he did late in the match was far different. With a 4-3 lead in the fourth set, Djokovic held a love-40 lead at a time when one more point would have given him a chance to serve for the match. He blew the opportunity, thanks to a bit of classic Nadal toughness, and lost the set in a tiebreaker that he very easily could have won. To give up a chance like that to Nadal, a competitor with the bloodthirstiness of a shark, would spell doom for any other player in the draw. Dropping a break to Nadal in the fifth set to go down 4-2 only made things worse—it seemed as if he’d blown his chance to win the championship and maintain his stellar record over his closest rival by failing to close things out when the match was his for the taking.

That wasn’t the end of Djokovic, of course: he took the break back immediately and won five of the match’s last six games to seal the title. However, calling that stretch a comeback or reassertion of dominance does a major disservice to Nadal, who equaled Djokovic during that time and lost more because of a few vagaries of physics than any massive failures. Djokovic’s accomplishment on Sunday was defined not by his usual peerless play, but the fact that he weathered his mistakes, didn’t entirely overcome them, and still won. He came out of Sunday’s match with the trophy, not that stupid silver plate, without ending the match in clear control. For a guy who seemingly never fell under serious duress during his three Grand Slam championships last season, that represents significant progress both emotionally and aesthetically.

For all we know, this fantastic match—along with his very similar semifinal against Murray, which deserves its own lengthy column—might have been an outlier during a string of historic accomplishments. We can hope, though, that it’s not the case. Similar to Federer’s status several years ago, Djokovic’s increasingly clear establishment as the sport’s top dog could inspire his closest competitors to step up their games in order to present any sort of challenge. For the sake of the sport, and Djokovic’s development into a transcendent superstar, it might be necessary. This isn’t about the excitement of a rivalry, but the joy of witnessing a great athlete become something more.


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Comments

Guys, Djokovic is my favourite tennis player ever, better than many others, like nadal or federer...He has lots of chances and he's really talented in tennis.

To tell the truth I am proud of him and me living on the same earth with him. Novak rocks!
Convert flv to mp4 free on my site. Best wishes,
Jodi Pruitt

Loved everything about this, but wasn't Novak's double-match point against Federer in the Semis of the US Open (where he came up with the shot of the year) both the serious duress and back-to-the-wall apotheosis you're talking about?