The best role model for learning to play tennis is Novak Djokovic. That would be John McEnroe’s advice to any youngster who comes to him for tips. He said as much during a while commentating at Wimbledon earlier this month, watching Djokovic progress inexorably to his 20th Grand Slam title, tying him with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
This was high praise from the tennis legend who has also been an admirer of Federer and Nadal. For grace and brilliance, it’s hard to surpass Federer on grass. The same can be said for the power and athleticism of Nadal on a clay court. But if you’re looking for the perfect game to emulate, Djokovic is the one to watch.
His economy of movement, repeatability of ground strokes, and balance between power and accuracy take him the closest to perfection. Unfortunately, these are also the attributes that make him appear robotic to many.
That’s one reason why the cheers are always louder for his opponent, as in the last Wimbledon final where spectators roared each time his younger opponent, Matteo Berrettini, scored a point. You can imagine how the crowd would have got behind Federer or Nadal if either of them had been in Djokovic’s position of vying for an all-time record.
The Serbian World No.1 even dropped the first set on a tie-breaker after uncharacteristically faltering while serving for the set, showing that he’s human. Of course, he went on to win 3-1, capping off a perfect tournament in which he lost only one other set. That was in the opening round, as he got his footing on the grass of Wimbledon after winning a five-set final against Stefanos Tsitsipas on the clay of the French Open.
Younger opponents such as Tsitsipas are probably more of a threat to the 34-year-old Serb going forward. Nadal, who is a year older, is struggling with niggles, and Federer, who turns 40 next month, is yet to find his mojo after his recent return from knee surgery.
Djokovic’s Olympic Rivals
Djokovic’s main rival in the Olympics is the big-hitting Russian, Daniil Medvedev, the current world No.2 who Djokovic defeated at the Australian Open final this year. Before that, he has to get past German world No.5, Alexander Zverev. There’s also Tsitsipas lurking in the other half with Medvedev.
So, even though Federer and Nadal have given the Olympics a miss to focus on getting into top shape for the US Open just a month away, Djokovic has his work cut out in Tokyo. What makes the Olympic campaign fraught with uncertainty is the best-of-three format, which makes it a chancier affair than the best-of-fives in the Grand Slams.
At this year’s French Open, for instance, Djokovic came from two sets down to beat Lorenzo Musetti. Djokovic also lost the first two sets to Tsitsipas in the final before turning the match around. He won’t get a chance to do that in the Olympics.
Staging comebacks are a tribute not just to Djokovic’s physical fitness and mental strength but also his tactical acumen. He has developed an uncanny ability to make strategic adjustments during a match if an opponent starts getting the better of him. When the exciting young Canadian left-hander, Denis Shapovalov, threw Djokovic off his stride with swerving serves into his body in the Wimbledon semi-finals, the Serb countered by shifting where his receiving position and stemmed the hemorrhaging of easy points. Shapovalov was serving for the first set at 5-4 when he lost his nerve.
It’s not only against young opponents that nerves of steel and self-belief have carried Djokovic through. He has done it time and again against his arch rivals, Federer and Nadal, over the past decade. Federer had two championship points and was serving for the match in the fifth set of the 2019 Wimbledon final, but Djokovic broke his serve and then won the epic battle of nearly five hours.
It was a call back to Djokovic’s first big triumph over Federer in the semi-finals of the US Open in 2010. Then too he had saved two championship points before winning the fifth set. He did lose in the final to a well-rested Nadal, but it marked the beginning of a dream run for Djokovic, who won the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and US Open in 2011 and then the Australian Open again at the start of 2012, beating Nadal in three out of those four Grand Slam finals.
The wonders of a diet change
Djokovic arrived on the Grand Slam circuit in 2005, and had his first Grand Slam triumph at the Australian Open in 2008. But thereafter he kept losing to either Federer or Nadal in the major tournaments. Worse was his tendency to lose steam during long matches.
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He conceded the 2009 Australian Open quarter-final to Andy Roddick in the fourth set, attributing it to a heat stroke. The following year, again in the quarter-finals, he took a medical break in the fourth set when he was 2-1 up against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, then lost the last two sets 6-3, 6-2. But the loss to Tsonga would turn out to be the launch pad for his rise to the top.
Serbian nutritionist Dr Igor Cetojevic, who happened to put on his TV to watch his countryman, got in touch with Djokovic after the loss. He persuaded the Serb to switch to a plant-based diet, cutting out sugar, gluten, dairy, and meat. Dr Cetojevic joined the Djokovic team on the ATP tour and stayed with him till his Wimbledon victory in 2011.
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Djokovic became one of the first top athletes to advocate such a diet, although he adds small amounts of fish or poultry to boost his protein intake during tournaments. It made him leaner and stronger, with the physical and mental endurance to overcome opponents in long matches.
His ability to contort his body to return a serve or a potential winner from seemingly impossible angles make him an awkward customer to face. He forces opponents to play that extra shot and make an error. His rivals feel the pressure to take more risks because they have little expectation of an unforced error from Djokovic. Not for nothing has he been numero uno in the world for an all-time record 330 weeks and counting.
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The challenge of growing up in a war-torn country, hiding in the basement of his grandfather’s house during bombing raids on Belgrade, makes it all the more admirable. If he does emulate what Steffi Graf did in 1988 by winning the Golden Slam, or what Rod Laver did in 1969 by winning the Grand Slam in men’s tennis, there would be nobody more deserving. This year he became the only player to beat Nadal twice at the French Open, and he’s also the only one to have done that to Federer at Wimbledon.
All that remains is for tennis fans to discern the minimalist genius of his all-round game that former greats like McEnroe can appreciate. Metronomic as it may seem, the mental and physical poise that goes into it is worth an ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ as much as a Federer backhand or Nadal topspin.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.