Nov/12

26

Djokovic’s Achilles Heel

If Novak Djokovic’s Grand Slam tally has steadied,

his trademark ambition has not. Having surrendered

the world No. 1 ranking, the Serbian’s top priority is

reclaiming it. DAN MARKOWITZ reports

Novak Djokovic fell to his back
and let out a primal roar to the
heavens. He’d finally pummeled
an inside-out forehand winner to close
out Rafael Nadal after five hours and
53-minutes of ferocious battle in the final of
Australian Open 2012. After congratulating
Nadal, who had already shaken the
umpire’s hand and walked disconsolately
around the net towards his chair, Djokovic
ripped the black shirt off his chest and
pulled it over his head. He then unleashed
another primal roar directed at his team
in the stands and walked over to them,
preening like a bodybuilder in a Mr
Universe contest. After smashing the sides

of the stands with his hands, Djokovic
walked back to his chair bare-chested,
crossing himself once again.
Djokovic’s bombastic celebration was
emblematic of the passion and monumental
effort he displayed in winning his third
consecutive Grand Slam and four of the last
five. The match with Nadal broke the record
for the longest singles Slam final ever
played and the 24-year-old seemed well on
his way to winning four majors in a row by
taking down Nadal at the French Open. It
was “the ultimate challenge,” said Djokovic
who could also consider becoming the first
man to claim a calendar-year Grand Slam
since Rod Laver in 1969.

At the same time, Djokovic’s histrionics
marked what in hindsight could be
evidenced as a fatal flaw. In overshadowing
Nadal after their brilliant display of power
baseline tennis, Djokovic’s rivals now
had Exhibit A to study when planning
the beheading of the new king. And
Djokovic may have stoked his own fire too
manically. For so long, he had been the
pursuer, always chasing Nadal and Roger
Federer, but rarely toppling them. Now he
had to fully believe in his own miraculous
powers of recovery and domination.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a
crown,” Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV.
But in Djokovic’s case, after defending
his Australian Open crown, maybe
winning big now seemed like a rite and
his destiny. Had his head became too big
for the crown to fit comfortably upon? In
his last two Slam wins at the 2011 US Open
and Australian Open 2012, the new world
No. 1 had twice come back from the brink
of defeat at the hands of both Federer and
Nadal to record unforgettable victories.

At the US Open, Djokovic rallied in
the semis from a two-sets-to-love hole
and two match points down on Federer’s
serve to beat the former king. His missile
forehand return of serve appeared the
magic stroke of a fearless warrior –
although Federer afterward called it lucky.
In either interpretation, it served both to
embolden Djokovic and deflate Federer.
Nole’s emphatic gesture to the crowd after
making the shot, as if to declare, “Are you
with me now?” could not have gone over
well in Federer’s psyche, even though he
claimed not to have seen it.
Djokovic found himself down again in
the Australian Open final to Nadal, two
sets to one. After winning the fourth set,
Djokovic was again in a pickle in the fifth
set, down a break with Nadal serving
at 4-2, 30-15. The Spaniard had a wide-
open backhand set up down the line, but
went for a shot too close to the line and
pushed it wide. Instead of being one point
away from going down 2-5, Djokovic
once again, like a Phoenix rising from the

ashes, had new life. He used it to subdue
his year-older opponent, notching his
seventh consecutive victory over Nadal,
all in either Masters Series or Slam finals,
in the span of less than one year.
Now Djokovic seemed ready to fully
eclipse his competition. Only Federer (in
2004 and 2007) and Nadal (in 2010) in
the past decade had won three Slams in a
calendar year before Djokovic pulled the
hat trick in 2011. In 2005, Federer
followed it up by winning two
Slams, but in 2008, he won
only one Slam and Nadal
in 2011, also won only one
Slam. After his thrilling
Australian Open triumph,
Djokovic seemed on the
precipice of possibly
repeating his epic 2011
season, or even surpassing
it by winning the Grand
Slam, and even a Golden
Slam, if he also captured
gold at the Olympics.

Novak Djokovic’s four titles for 2012
pale alongside his 10 at the same
time in 2011 but athleticism and raw
ambition remain stronger than ever.

After a gruelling and record-breaking final led to a stunning defence of his Australian Open title, Djokovic lost to the eventual winner of every other Grand Slam in 2012.

Yes, Nadal and Federer were still
formidable foes, and even Andy Murray,
who nearly beat Djokovic in the Australian
Open semis, had to be reckoned with, but
this Djokovic seemed invincible.
His game was the perfect blend of
offense and defense. He owned the best
backhand in the game and his forehand
had become a real weapon, too. Even his
serve, once plagued by awkwardness and
incessant ball dribbling before delivery,
had morphed into a finely tuned shot. And
then there was his elasticity, his Gumby-like
ability to run down balls seemed destined
to be winners and send them back at his
opponents with interest. In this regard,

his edge. Djokovic continued a worrisome
trend of playing too passively at the start,
falling behind and then trying to mount
an epic comeback. It had worked twice
in earlier rounds, when he rallied back
against Andreas Seppi and Jo-Wilfried
Tsonga to win five-set matches, but it didn’t
fly against Nadal in the French Open final.
After dropping the first two sets, Nole won
eight consecutive games in the third and
fourth sets. But a rain delay allowed Nadal
to regroup, finishing off Djokovic and any
of his “Djokovic Slam,” Grand Slam and
Golden Slam dreams.
On the Wimbledon grass, Djokovic’s
decline accelerated. Looking hesitant,

lost the first two sets and had little left in
the fifth, cramping and losing 6-2.
Like Federer and Nadal before him,
Djokovic could only capture the one Slam
after his epic three-Slam 2011. Did he
become over-confident, believing and
relying too adamantly in his own Houdini-
like recovery prowess? Had his rivals
amped up their attack when faced with the
prospect of Nole dominating the game?
Or as Gencic intimated, did Djokovic
suffer personal problems that derailed
him? It’s hard to pinpoint one reason
above all else, but it’s safe to say that
they all fused into contributing to the
“Champion’s Burden.”

31 comments

  • Steve · November 26, 2012 at 3:07 pm

    “Djokovic seemed on the
    precipice of possibly
    repeating his epic 2011
    season, or even surpassing
    it by winning the Grand
    Slam, and even a Golden
    Slam,”

    I can’t imagine anyone ever thinking this while sober.

  • Author comment by Dan Markowitz · November 27, 2012 at 8:42 am

    Firstly, I try not to be sober.

    Secondly, I was not sober when I wrote this piece.

    Thirdly, Djokovic was so dominant in 2011 that I don’t think it is inaccurate to write the above sentence. The feeling clearly was that if the Fognini debacle didn’t occur at the French, Djoko was ready to take out Fed and Nadal at the French and could’ve won the slam in 2011.

    Now, we saw this year that Djoko definitely doesn’t play his best tennis on the grass, but in 2011, he handily beat Nadal at Wimbledon. So I don’t think it was grandiose to think that Djoko could’ve repeated in 2012 what he did in 2011, and maybe even going beyond that epic season.

    Look, if the rain delay didn’t occur at the French this year, Djoko very well could’ve taken Nadal out. And I think Fed winning Wimby and the emergence of Murray, were virtually unseen happenings in ’12. With a diminished Nadal, who was going to stop Djoko? Ferrer, Berdy, Tsonga, Del Po?

  • Steve · November 27, 2012 at 10:39 am

    I think you’re still drunk.

    Fed started his climb to #1 while Djok collapsed in the end of the 2011 indoor season. This made Djok’s 2011 one of the greatest rather than “the greatest” season of all time –which was a shame.

    With a surging Fed and a healthy Nadal it would have been silly to have counted them out. You can’t toss aside Nadal’s record at the FO because Djoker went had one amazing season.

    Now with Nadal injured he has a great shot at the French but let’s hope Rafa is 100%.

  • Author comment by Scoop Malinowski · November 27, 2012 at 11:30 am

    I wouldn’t say Djokovic collapsed late last year, more so that he was spent and really felt no need to kill himself to win minor tournaments after he won three majors last year, I think he was looking more on recovery and rest and regalvanzing for 2012 then feeling any need at all to prove himself in late 2012. He lowered it from fifth to third gear. And it worked out well as he defended in Australia against a raging Nadal, one of the most amazing finals I have ever seen. Like Dan I thought Djokovic had a shot at the Golden Slam this year, which would have been nothing sport of a miracle, with Fed, Rafa and Murray and Delpo all so motivated to knock him off. Djok came close actually but as we know he was a bit off his top form for key stretches and it didn’t happen but he still achieved the next best thing from the Golden slam with a fantastic year to regain and defend #1. If Djokovic has any achilles maybe it’s the inability to always be able to play his A plus game in every single match in majors, but he is human, we really can’t expect to see him at his optimum best every time.

  • Steve · November 27, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    You guys get caught up in hype a bit. To cast aside Nadal at the French –well, I’ve never heard anyone that knows tennis do this. There was no logical support for it really just hype off of one season and, no, winning in Rome is not winning the French.

    Now with Rafa’s injury it changes things.

    “more so that he was spent” –still a collapse for whatever reason. I’ll remember to use this “spent” excuse next time Fed loses. :-) At least he’s over 30.

  • Author comment by Scoop Malinowski · November 27, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    Steve, Djokovic didn’t need to win those events, he needed to defend Australia. I think his focus was on Australia more so than winning London WTF. Also, Djok should have won the French this year, Rafa whining to stop the match when he lost 8 straight games was the key move. Djok almost went up the second break in the fourth but Nadal kept complaining to stop the match – in effect stopping Djok’s momentum. Had Nadal been a few games away from clinching it, I assure you he would not have whined for a stoppage. Djok was too passive and let Nadal dictate this. Otherwise I like Dan, believe Djokovic would have won the French Open, Nadal was saved by the standing 8 count he basically begged for.

  • Steve · November 27, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    So now you can read Djoker’s mind? He threw the WTF and other tourney’s to save himself? He tanked a whole indoor season away? No credit goes to his opponents…ever?
    Rafa has 7 FOs yet without trickery he can’t beat Djoker?
    Like I said that’s hype not logic.

    Delays are part of the game. All the players deal with them.

  • Author comment by Scoop Malinowski · November 27, 2012 at 8:57 pm

    Steve I won’t say he threw those events but IMO he was not as inspired or motivated to win them as he was for the major finals. Why expend that energy when #1 is in the bag and you have to defend Australia. Let Fed, Nadal and Murray pick up those crumbs. It’s all about managing your schedule smartly. Burnout must be avoided.

  • Steve · November 27, 2012 at 10:50 pm

    Same reason Fed keeps fighting after 17 slams. Love of the game, love of competition. It was a collapse.

    Scoop, I admit winning a single set against Nadal in a FO final is very impressive but the result wasn’t in doubt.

  • Tom Michael · November 27, 2012 at 11:59 pm

    Nadal beating Djoker at Roland Garros in the final was not ever in doubt. I agree, Steve!

  • Author comment by Dan Markowitz · November 28, 2012 at 7:40 am

    Whether you think Djoko would’ve won the FO final against Nadal this year or not (and when you win 8 games in a row to say that the match was never in doubt is comedic), I’m certain that if Djoko had faced Nadal in the 2011 FO final, he would’ve beat him. He had crushed him in Rome and Madrid, it’s a check mate he would’ve beaten him in Paris, too.

  • Steve · November 28, 2012 at 9:26 am

    So Dan why doesn’t Djoker have 7 FOs if he’s so amazing on clay? Did he tank the FO this as a strategic rest? Is this your theory?

    I revisited the last set. Djoker did win a stretch of games but only during the down pour. Then Nadal stopped his run and won a game before the delay. This 2nd stoppage of play was justified. They only kept it going to see if they could finish it in three sets but it took Nadal four.

  • Author comment by Scoop Malinowski · November 28, 2012 at 9:31 am

    Never in doubt? Are you kidding me? Nadal was freaking out while losing those eight games in a row, the match was slipping away. Nadal was whining and crying in desperation, pleading and begging to stop the match. Djokovic was killing him. Nadal begged and bullied the officials hard enough and got his way. They came out the next day and Djokovic had to start all over again and lost his break lead and Nadal kept the pressure on him. Nadal showed a mean streak and desperation which got the job done, Djokovic came out too flat and passive the next day and was overwhelmed. But he had Nadal on the canvas, ready to be knocked out. Nadal used the rain as a way out. It was smart by Nadal but I think it was dirty too but a lot of great champs have to get down and dirty to win.

  • Author comment by Scoop Malinowski · November 28, 2012 at 10:18 am

    Steve, Nadal won that last game on account of distracting Djokovic with all the whining and complaining he was doing, Djok softened up on him out of mercy and loss of focus because of Nadal’s whining, IMO. Djok took a long time to become a strong enough player to finally be able to overcome Nadal after years of coming up just short. He finally mastered Nadal in a close match (third set TB) in Miami 2011 and that gave him the confidence as it was the first time he beat Nadal in a close finish at the end. Then with that gained confidence, the last step was to do it on clay and he did that too in the following clay Masters Series. I believe Djokovic is the only player who can beat Nadal consistently on clay, he did it before and he will do it again!

  • Tom Michael · November 28, 2012 at 10:23 am

    There was nothing dirty about what Nadal did to win. The dirty player was the corrupt chair umpire who did not check the lines if they were safe to play. It took an impartial tournament referee to make sure things played fairly. All Nadal did was ask the match to be played in regulation conditions. Nadal wanted to play and win by the rules, and this makes him dirty?

    And Djoker’s fans to want him to win on an non-regulation clay court, i.e. mud, is just pathetic to me. If Djoker is so great, then he would have started the match with the lead on the regulation clay match conditions. But he achieved the run of 8 games when the conditions were not even regulation. Though those eight games in a row contributed to the scoreline, they are not possible in normal conditions.

    So the match result was not ever in doubt especially when the court plays like a real clay court, i.e. sliding is possible on such court conditions.

  • Steve · November 28, 2012 at 10:44 am

    “Nadal was whining and crying in desperation, pleading and begging to stop the match.” Nadal never whined or begged or cried. He merely tossed a soaked tennis ball at the umpire and then continued playing. 1/3rd of the crowd had to use umbrellas. It was a justified stoppage. There was an earlier stoppage no one complains about. Only after the stoppage did Nadal give a little lecture to the official.

  • Author comment by Scoop Malinowski · November 28, 2012 at 11:48 am

    I disagree, I think Nadal would have completed the match in those conditions if Djokovic wasn’t playing so phenomenally well. But Djokovic was simply killing the king of clay. The conditions were the same for both players but like during the 7 match win streak he had vs. Nadal, Djokovic was once again dominating Nadal. Nadal was forced into desperate action and began to verbally attack and bully the officials, I believe he even tossed a ball aggressively at one of them. Again, Nadal would have completed the match if he was the one winning eight games in a row and on the verge of victory. Djokovic certainly had no problems with the conditions of the court which were natural. I believe the match could have been completed as there are ingredients, I’ve been told, in the red clay which hasten drying. Neither player was falling or taking nasty spills, both were operating under the conditions but one was doing better. Yes it was within the rules to stop the match (I think Djokovic should have insisted on finishing, he was too passive and let Nadal dictate) but so was Nadal faking the injury vs. Petzschner at Wimbledon, stalling the match for ten minutes then getting up and dominating Petzschner who had gone cold from Nadal’s stalling timeout, that was within the rules but it was IMO dirty yet smart maneuvering by Nadal. But it’s all part of tennis and what makes it so interesting, and proof that the smartest player usually wins the close battles. Nadal was smarter that day.

  • Steve · November 29, 2012 at 9:05 am

    Nadal won their last three encounters on clay.

    2012 Roland Garros
    6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5

    2012 ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Rome
    7-5, 6-3

    2012 ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Monte Carlo
    6-3, 6-1

    I know Djoker was in mourning during the Monte Carlo final but Nadal had really re-taken control of their rivalry.

  • Author comment by Scoop Malinowski · November 29, 2012 at 9:59 am

    Got the sense, could be wrong, that Djokovic was saving his best for Paris, there really was no major incentive to beat Nadal again in Rome or Monte Carlo, Paris was the goal. Rome and Monte Carlo meant much more to Nadal than Djokovic. Djok was on his way to conquering Roland Garros – till the rains came and Nadal forced the stoppage of the match.

  • Dan Markowitz · November 29, 2012 at 10:10 am

    No, Scoop, I think that’s unfair to say that Djoko was saving his best for Paris. I think he wanted to beat Nadal, but he wasn’t playing his best in MC or Rome. You seem very sure Djoko would’ve won the match at the French if not for the rain delay. I didn’t see it live so don’t know if I think you’re right or not. But I do feel Djoko is the favorite at this year’s French because we haven’t seen Nadal play now in 6 months and no one else can conceivably beat Djoko at the French.

  • Steve · November 29, 2012 at 10:55 am

    Scoop you’re basically saying every time Djoker loses it’s cause he’s either saving him self or was merciful to his opponent or had a bad day or lack of crowd support. Nadal is the greatest clay court player of all time and just ticked off three straight victories against your man. Djoker himself said the better player won that day.

    With Fed pushing 32 and Nadal’s knee/leg in question it’s the perfect time for Djokovic to strike at the French. With seven FOs you can make a sound case that Nadal only loses there when he’s not feeling great but I won’t. A loss is a loss is a loss. Soderling was better that day –no excuses.

  • Author comment by Scoop Malinowski · November 29, 2012 at 11:05 am

    Steve I respect your view and Nadal’s spectacular achievements but I just feel Djokovic is the superior player. Beating Rafa seven times in a row is mastery, I don’t think Nadal ever dominated Fed seven times in a row. When Nadal won those matches vs. Djok this year I saw them as good wins but gifts to varying degrees, even Rafa called Monte Carlo a gift. Rome was good but Djok IMO did not go all out for it. I believe Djokovic tried with all his might to regain his mastery of Rafa in the French final and he was well on his way to do it – until the rains game and Rafa halted the match. Let’s see what happens this year !

  • Steve · November 29, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    Yes. Hopefully one day Djoker will get that elusive first FO! This could be his year to do it.

  • Steve · November 29, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    I think I have discovered Djoker’s achilles heal though. There’s actually two holes.

  • Author comment by Scoop Malinowski · November 29, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    Another heel might be his timing, he was born at an impossible time to succeed in tennis, if he had just timed it a few years differently he’d have 25 majors by now : )

  • Steve · November 29, 2012 at 2:34 pm

    He’s going to get sick ripping off his clothes even after winning exhibitions.

  • Author comment by Scoop Malinowski · November 29, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    Where did Djok do that recently Steve?

  • Steve · November 29, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    After beating Spadea in practice.

  • Author comment by Scoop Malinowski · December 1, 2012 at 9:18 am

    An expression of relief and conquest by Djok at overcoming the still formidable though out of shape Spadea.

  • Steve · December 3, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    Ya know I saw Mayotte on the Outback Champion’s tour filling in for someone. He had a huge weekend warrior gut. Probably well over 200 pounds but he certainly gave great effort hurling his large frame towards the net at every opportunity. I wonder if Spadea can fill-in on the new version of this tour.

  • Author comment by Scoop Malinowski · December 3, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    Remember that Steve, Tim was about 10 pounds heavy but he was playing superb tennis that match. Think it was in Boston. BTW, Courier wrapped up the Powershares tour last week, Agassi got second place, Mac third.

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