Novak Djokovic comes of age with Serbia’s Davis Cup victory
Perhaps 2010 was not Novak Djokovic’s best year. Perhaps he did not close it as the top player in the world. And perhaps he made earlier exits from some events than he should have done.
Maybe he misjudged his preparations for the year’s first Grand Slam. Maybe, during the spring months, he took the wrong advice on his serve from coach Todd Martin. And maybe, in the closing months, he wished he had encountered Roger Federer in rather fewer matches.
But Djokovic may still look back on 2010 as the year when he “put away childish things” and matured into one of the most complete players in tennis.
It is easy to forget how young Djokovic was when his career took off. He turned pro at 16 and two years later ended 2005 as the youngest player in the top 100. By 2006, he had won two ATP titles from three finals and was the youngest player to end the year in the top 20.
It was the same story in 2007: five ATP titles, a first Grand Slam final and -still just 20 -the youngest man in the top 10 at the end of the year.
Two more mountains were scaled in 2008 with a first slam title in Melbourne and the Masters Cup in Shanghai. Now ranked third in the world, Djokovic won four titles from seven finals, reached the semis of Roland Garros and Wimbledon and took the bronze medal at the Olympics. And there was one more significant event: a win in the Davis Cup playoffs that ensured Serbia’s place in the World Group.
The lean, fast Djokovic physique, driven by a keen intelligence and a passion that threatens to burst through his ribcage after every win, powered through 10 finals to five more titles in 2009.
He played more matches than anyone else -97. He reached the quarter-finals or better in 19 out of 22 tournaments. And on his favourite hard courts, he won 29 out of 33 matches in the second half of the year.
So he rode into 2010 on a wave of success, with new coach Martin in his corner and some of his natural, but often misplaced, ebullience reined in. His reward was to break through the Federer-Nadal duopoly.
With the Spaniard needing treatment on troublesome knees, Djokovic rose to No2 in the world. Once Nadal was back at the top of the rankings, Djokovic stepped above Federer not once but twice between summer and autumn.
Consistency was his watchword: he reached the quarters or better in all four Grand Slams, for one thing. But though he won an early title in Dubai, he suffered his first opening round loss since January 2009 in Miami, and had to wait until October and Beijing for his second and final trophy of the year.
It began to look, in particular, as though the Djokovic serve was not up to its usual standard. And the less reliable it became, the more the confidence seemed to leach from the rest of his game.
So in the early summer, he took decisive action and separated from coach Martin. He cited communication problems but went on to say: “He tried to change [my serve], but it was all too complicated in the end and now I’m back to the old one.”
The second important confidence boost came at the US Open, in a semi-final meeting with a Federer aiming to reach his seventh final in New York. Djokovic carried the baggage of losses to the Swiss on Arthur Ashe in each of the previous three years and, when he went down 7-5 to an attacking Federer in the opening set, it had the makings of a similar tale.
But Djokovic replied with a 6-1 set, and they split the next two between them. Federer then won two match points in the fifth, but the Serb exhibited all his new confidence in saving them: one with a huge smash to the backhand corner, the second with a searing forehand down the line.
The way he won the match was even more impressive, outlasting Federer in a 21-stroke rally and eventually forcing the Swiss to drive a forehand wide. The Serb’s expression moved from shell-shocked to matter-of-fact to celebratory. He had broken a jinx, proved a point, and swelled with confidence by another inch or two.
Even though Federer beat him in their three remaining matches of the year he knew he had made a serious breakthrough. The clue to how he achieved it came in his own words. “I just knew I had to be patient and not lose my emotions too much,” he said. “Federer uses that nervousness of the opponent. He feels it.”
This time, Djokovic did not look nervous and showed infinite patience. He was also pragmatic in recognising that Federer had found his best tennis of the year to beat him in the semis of the World Tour Finals. In any case, Djokovic had more important business before 2010 was out: the final of the Davis Cup, against France -in his home city of Belgrade.
Djokovic was entirely dominant in his first match against Gilles Simon -not too much of a surprise, of course, against a man working his way back from injury. But against the outrageous athleticism and flamboyant tennis of Gael Monfils, Djokovic was equally impressive.
He wasted not one iota of emotional energy. He neither dropped his head nor glanced to the heavens -the familiar gestures of old. He quickly went 4-1 up with a merciless attack of piercing ground strokes mixed up with drops and a few lobs.
The Djokovic serve was also back to its best -82 per cent of first serves in the opening set -and he produced hardly an error in closing out the first set 6-2.
The second set was a near repeat, with Monfils forced into over-hitting by the accuracy and penetration of the Djokovic game: 6-2 again.
The third set saw the composure of the Serb disturbed only once when Monfils achieved a rare break. Djokovic vented his frustration by smashing his racket to pieces, and that release helped him regain his focus and reassert his dominance.
In the end it took a little over two hours to illustrate the kind of player that Djokovic has become: his new patience, his consistency, his intelligent control and the abandonment of despair.
The full-blown celebration of Davis Cup victory had to wait out a marvellous performance by his compatriot, Viktor Troicki, but then the extrovert, uninhibited Djokovic was unleashed.
That Djokovic is the same man who strode into the O2 arena sporting an eye-patch after a contact lens incident the night before. He is the man who happily modelled the briefest of briefs on the catwalk in Toronto. He is the man who enthusiastically shaved his head, on court, with his Serbian team-mates.
But he is also a man who can say of an opponent “every ball kind of listens to him”, who can speak Serbian, Italian, German, French and English, who has established a new ATP tournament in his home Belgrade to spread the tennis word to young Serbians.
He claims that “right now, emotionally, I’m confident, I’m happy, and looking forward to upcoming challenges.” This new-found maturity and contentedness, married to his rich array of shot-making, will surely deliver the 23-year-old his second grand slam in 2011.