First Chapter of “Chasing The GOAT: Roger, Rafa & Nole

Chasing The GOAT: Roger, Rafa, Nole & The 2012 Golden Slam Year
By Dan Markowitz

The King Falters As the Dark Prince Ascends

Roger Federer stepped up to the baseline to serve at match point against his great rival, Rafael Nadal, in the semifinals of the Masters Series event in Indian Wells, CA. Unbelievably, Federer had not beaten Nadal on a hard outdoor court since 2005. It was now March 2012 and as Federer lined up to serve on the ad court, he thought he’d hit the ball down the middle at the T. In mid-toss, though, he suddenly had a change of mind and decided to serve out wide. The ball scorched down on the singles sideline inside the server’s box and Nadal, flat-footed and fooled, could not even make a move to return it. Federer went with his impulse and he was rewarded with an ace and the match. Such is this champion’s brilliance and his unique breed of confidence.

The problem for Federer in March 2012 was that at age 30, with his two greatest rivals, Nadal and Novak Djokovic, just 25 and 24, respectively, he had not won a Grand Slam event (The Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and The U.S. Open) in more than two years. Djokovic and Nadal had combined to win the last eight slam events from the 2010 Roland Garros through the 2012 Australian Open. So even though Federer won at Indian Wells, one of the eight Masters Series events held during the pro tennis season–a significant notch below a Grand Slam event–and had compiled a 39-2 match record since the 2011 U.S. Open and won five tournaments, he was still No. 3 in the world. In other words, the all-time grand slam record-holder was still stuck at 16 slam victories.

This did not bode well in the mind and psyche of Federer. When he broke Pete Sampras’s record of 14 slam victories back in 2010 by winning the Australian Open, Federer had won at least one slam in the past eight straight seasons (2003-2010). In 2004, 2006 and 2007, Federer had won three slams, a feat only duplicated in the Open Era (1969 and on) by three other players at the time (Rod Laver in 1969, Jimmy Connors in 1974 and Mats Wilander in 1988. Nadal accomplished the feat in 2010.). The Swiss maestro is still the only player ever to win six slams over two years. But Federer was shut out of slams in 2011 and even though most tennis pundits predicted the he had at least one more slam left in him, Djokovic and Nadal were not making it easy on him.
Neither was the media and they were getting under his skin. In 2011, after Federer was easily dispatched by Nadal in the semis of the Miami Masters Series event, he threatened not to answer any more questions about his slam slide.

“I don’t know how many times I need to answer until I just say I’m not going to answer it anymore,” said Federer. “Up to you how many times I will have to answer the question until I’m sick and tired of it. But I know that I can do many more things in the game. I don’t feel like I’m 35 like you guys make me sound I am. I’m still only 29, and I have many more years left.”

Only Laver, Ken Rosewall and Andre Agassi won multiple slams after the age of 30. But Federer once predicted he would win 20 slams. That was before Djokovic became prominent in the slam picture. Up until the 2011 Australian Open, Djokovic had only won one slam, the 2008 Australian Open. He was the third-best player in the world for three years, but so far behind Federer and Nadal that in the 11 slams played between Djokovic winning his first and second slams, Federer and Nadal had combined to win 10 of them. In the span of those three years (2008-2010), Djokovic was an anemic 9-18 against the world’s top two players. But in 2011, the imposing Serb stunningly reversed his fortunes against the Swiss and the Spaniard, winning a combined 10 out of 11 matches against them and smashing their duopoly. Every one of those wins except one was a big one, coming in either a slam or Masters event semis or finals.

“I kind of thought he was content at No. 3,” said Brad Gilbert, the former coach to Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray. “In 2010, he was the only player in the Top 50 to average more double faults than aces. But then his serve and forehand got better and he changed his diet.”

Suddenly, a player who had been accused of being soft for dropping out of matches because of heat prostration and breathing problems was the world No. 1 and he had taken out two of arguably the Top-5 greatest players of all time to reach that pinnacle. Djokovic had retired mid-match from four grand slam matches and players such as Federer and Roddick had criticized and even mocked his toughness. But by changing to a gluten-free diet, Djokovic was now a lean-and-mean tennis machine, capable of out-hitting Nadal from the baseline and outlasting Federer in two critical five-set matches in the U.S. Open semis of 2010 and 2011.

In both of those matches, Federer had held double match points only to have Djokovic step up and fire crippling shots that brought him back from the brink of defeat. In 2011, down double match point on Federer’s serve, Djokovic hit a go-for-broke forehand return of serve for a cross-court winner. The sheer brilliance or outrageous luck—theories expounded on both sides of the shot—of Djokovic’s return shocked the tennis world.

When asked Federer after the match whether the shot was a function of luck, risk or confidence, the former champ cut him short.
“It’s just not a guy who believes much, you know, anymore in winning,” he replied. “Confidence? Are you kidding me? I mean, please. Look, some players grow up and play like that. I remember losing junior matches. Just being down 5-2 in the third, and they all just start slapping shots. It all goes in for some reason, because that’s the kind of way they grew up playing when they were down.
“I never played that way. I believe in hard work’s gonna pay off kinda thing, because early on maybe I didn’t always work at my hardest. So for me, this is very hard to understand how can you play a shot like that on match point. But look, maybe he’s been doing it for 20 years, so for him it was very normal. You’ve got to ask him.”

If breaking into the top tier of men’s tennis is like joining an exclusive club, which it clearly is, and Federer were its president, Djokovic would still be waiting for an invitation. Federer had few rivals at the slams from 2003 through 2007 (except for the teenage Nadal starting on clay in 2005 and on grass in 2006) when he won 12 of his 16 slams. His three main rivals during this dominant stretch, the Australian Lleyton Hewitt, the Russian Marat Safin and the American Roddick, were a combined 2-28 against Federer. He welcomed Nadal into his rarefied world because he respected the Spaniard’s toughness and he realized that without a true rival, fans were losing interest. Besides, Nadal adopted a deferential attitude toward Federer. Even after his younger adversary took over the reins in their rivalry, the Majorcan continued to say that Federer was the superior player.

Both Western European from countries with if not stellar tennis histories (Switzerland never had a grand slam champion, but Spain had Manolo Santana in the 1960’s, a former World No. 1, and six other grand slam champions leading up to Nadal), at least solid tennis backgrounds, Federer and Nadal actually have a lot in common. They play the game with a similar no-nonsense, business-like approach. Their rivalry is characterized by a chivalrous respect for each other abilities. Nadal “the king of clay” and Federer “the king of grass,” even played an exhibition match in 2007 on a half-grass, half-clay court.

But Djokovic prickled the Swiss maestro’s sensibilities, as did Djokovic’s brash parents, Dijuana and Srjdan, who brayed, “the king is dead,” when their son trounced Federer in the 2008 Australian Open semis. A few months later at the Masters event in Monte Carlo, Federer hissed at the talkative couple, “be quiet,” when he thought their rooting was too loud. The British commentator announcing the match dryly intoned, “No love lost between these two and that will only make matters worse.”
Djokovic was from Serbia, an Eastern-European country that had little tennis pedigree and much worse, had just committed genocide in the Yugoslav Wars of 1991-1995. NATO forces in 1999 had to intervene with heavy and sustained air strikes aimed mostly at Serbian targets to crush the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, who was later arrested and charged with war crimes. Djokovic carried a Serbian flag in his tennis bag and was openly supportive of Serbian efforts to keep Kosovo in Serbia. There was a feeling that Djokovic and his family were not only tennis outsiders, but they were also part-redneck in their ways and actions.

It didn’t seem to matter as the quixotic Serb never seemed capable of breaking up the Rafa-Fed duopoly. As S.L. Price wrote in an SI article, “The two tennis gods radiated a sober intensity, and despite Djokovic’s occasional bite at big tournaments, he often shrank when the time came to fully take them down. He lacked gravitas. He seemed fated to go down as his generation’s Marat Safin, the prodigious Russian talent whose fearsome backhand was undermined by a highly distractable mind.”

A bit of a détente has settled over the Federer and Djokovic relations since Nole, Djokovic’s nickname, has solidified himself as the No. 1 player and conducted himself more professionally. But the Swiss maestro and the upward class-crashing Serb never hit it off and in Federer’s case, he could barely conceal his disapproval. In playing style, Federer is all grace while Djokovic is more like a skidding machine. Even now, as Djokovic and Nadal play exhibition matches, Federer and Djokovic never do.

Djokovic’s ascendency to world No. 1 was highly improbable. Even reaching No. 3 in 2007 was amazing enough because Serbia had never produced a men’s tennis champion or anything close to it. (The former Yugoslavia from which Serbia seceded was the home of Monica Seles, who though born in Novi Sad, Serbia’s second-largest city, Seles was not a Serb. She was of Hungarian ethnicity. Seles left Yugoslavia in 1986 at age 13 before the country split up and enrolled at Nick Bolletiteri’s Academy in Florida). The Serbia Djokovic rose out of was a war-torn country with little tennis infrastructure. Djokovic’s parents were skiers and had never played tennis. But when Novak was three, a pharmaceutical company built three tennis courts across the street from the family-owned pizzeria in the resort mountain town of Kopaonic, and little Novak was instantly smitten.

“It’s hard to say what I felt as a kid,” said Djokovic. “As a four-year-old I can’t really remember. I just remember I fell in love at the first sight. Again, it was not by accident. They were making three tennis courts in front of our restaurant. It was probably for a reason. It was kind of a destiny for me to be able to start and play tennis and get the racquet.

“In my family nobody played tennis. They were all professional skiers or soccer players or something else. I started spending a lot of time hitting balls and I was watching whenever I wasn’t on the court. I was outside and watching somebody playing. I was really obsessed with the sport, and I guess that desire is still present.”

In the summer of 1993 legendary Yugoslav tennis coach Jelena Gencic, who had previously coached Yugoslavian stars, Seles, Iva Majoli and Goran Ivanisevic, held a summer tennis camp in Kopaonik. She spotted the six-year-old Novak outside the courts and said later, “It was the first day of my first year in Kopaonik, and I was doing a tennis camp. He (Novak) was standing outside the tennis courts and watching all morning, and I said: ‘Hey little boy, do you like it? Do you know what this is? Why don’t you come and join us?”

Having asked his parents, Novak returned to take part in the clinic. Gencic still remembers the impression he created upon her: “I shall never forget when he came to the camp. He arrived half an hour early with a big tennis bag all neatly packed, as if for professional training. Inside I saw a tennis racquet, towel, bottle of water, extra T-shirt, banana, wristbands, everything you need for a game. I asked him who packed it for him and he replied he did it himself. I said to him, how did you know what to pack? And he replied, I’ve seen Pete Sampras on TV.”

By the third day of the camp Gencic met with Novak’s parents and told them, “You have a golden child. He will be the best in the world.” It was exactly what she had told Seles’ parents when she was eight. It turned out to be true with Seles as it did with Djokovic.
Gencic not only taught Novak the basics of the game but also provided him inspiration through poetry and classical music. She was a former leading tennis player, and member of Yugoslavia’s national handball squad. Her trophy case filled with shiny testaments to her talent inspired the young Novak to win trophies of his own. Djokovic had a guiding angel and he recalled her impact.

“She is my second mother. Pretty much everything that I know on court I owe to her, and a lot of things off it, too. She took care of my life in general. What I was doing in school; what I was having to eat and drink. We were listening to classical music together. She wanted to teach me how I should behave on and off the court, how professional I should be.”
“Jelena is our family coach,” said Srdjan Djokovic, Novak’s father. “She created Novak. He owes her a great deal. Jelena instilled in him a certain attitude, both to sport and to life.”

Gencic gave Djokovic’s family, who knew nothing about tennis, the assurance that Novak had what it took to be something exceptional in the game. “Let’s say that Jelena Gencic gave us strength; she’s a serious woman,” said Goran Djokovic, Novak’s uncle.
At age seven, Gencic managed to get young Novak on national TV.

A child interviewer asked Novak, “What’s your daily schedule?”

Novak replied, “I go to school in the morning, then play tennis in the afternoon, afterwards I do my homework, and then I play out in the evenings.”
“Is tennis a job or just play for you?” he was asked.

“Tennis is my job,” replied Nole, his nickname.

“And what is your goal?” asked the interviewer.

“To become a champion,” said Novak.

For four years, Gencic refined Nole’s skills, but much of the drive came from his dad. With no tennis knowledge, he became certain that his son would be the No. 1 player someday. “He believed Novak was an unbelievable player even when he was not unbelievable,” said Niki Pilic, the Croatian former pro whose academy in Germany Nole later attended. Later Srjdan and Dijana would wear matching t-shirts emblazoned with their son’s face at the 2010 U.S. Open and take a lot of criticism for it, but Srjdan’s faith in the eldest of his three son’s ability was never shaken even after losing streaks, adolescence and injuries. Whatever level Djokovic played at, he would look around at the competition and tell his son, “You’re better than all of them.”

Back in Belgrade, Novak trained at the Partizan Tennis Club where Janko Tipsarevic and Ana Ivanovic, two top Serbian juniors, also played. Money was tight and Srdjan struggled to pay the coaching fees, but insisted Novak get the best available. Goran Djokovic said, “Novak’s younger brothers (Marko and Djordie) suffered because Novak had to have the top food, the top equipment, he was the priority.”

In March 1999, when Novak was 12, NATO forces began flying 500 combat air missions into Serbia each day. Novak’s family continued living in their apartment there, but after the first week of bombing, began venturing out to practice.
Gencic’s sister died in the bombing, but she said that she, Novak and others, continued to play tennis in Belgrade, choosing areas that had been bombed the previous night on the assumption that they would not be bombed again so soon.
“I remember celebrating my birthday in May,” said Djokovic, “and then we saw planes flying over our heads and kind of bombing the city. It was really an ugly image, and it was something that I don’t like to remember, but on the other hand we were on the tennis court for a whole day.”

The General Manager of the Partizan club, Dusan Grujic, said, “Throughout the 78 days of bombing we kept the courts open every day, to help the young people think of something else.” Dijana, said, “There was no way we were going to sit at home crying. So Novak and his brothers were on the tennis court from 10 in the morning till 8 at night. You are practicing and listening to the sirens, but it was the only way. We were trying to find some way to get out.”

The young Nole’s goal of winning Wimbledon, Dijana said, “gave our family something we had to fight for. It was a very bad time because our country was in a bad situation, so we were trying to do everything for our son.” Tennis kept the family sane.
Djokovic still recalls the bombing with horror: “We heard the alarm noise about planes coming to bomb us every single day, a minimum of three times, for two and a half months. There was a huge noise in the city all the time, all the time. So in my case, when I hear a big noise even now, I get a little traumatized.

“We woke up at 2 and 3 a.m. every morning because of the bombing and went into the bomb shelter in my grandfather’s building in Belgrade where we moved. It made us tougher; more hungry for success.” On June 10, 1999, when the bombing finally stopped, Novak and his brothers ran outside shouting, “We are safe now! We are safe!”
Six months later, Gencic asked Pilic, Ivanisevic’s mentor, to consider Djokovic for his academy in Munich, Pilic, the former French Open semifinalist, didn’t think a boy of 12 ½ could withstand his grueling regimen, but he agreed to have Novak come and audition. Accompanied by Goran, Djokovic took his first plane ride After Pilic engaged in one practice session with the young Serb, he agreed to let him stay.

“I soon realized after a short spell playing against him,” said Pilic, “that the boy had this incredible will. He was great to coach, particularly because he had what it takes in the places that no coach can reach: into the heart and the head.”
After six days, Goran left Novak alone with Pilic and Novak cried. It was midwinter and he had little cash. Pilic’s wife dubbed him “Jacket,” because he didn’t have one.

There was always an urgency to Djokovic; he was on a mission to get to the top as quickly as he could. He became the top Under-14 and then Under-16 player in Europe. “Always he was very confident, and he was very sure that he was going to be on the top,” says Ernests Gulbis, the Latvian, who met Djokovic at the Pilic Academy. Gulbis came from a very wealthy family and after showing early promise on the pro tour has become a journeyman of late. “Nothing arrogant, but with all his thinking, all his work, he was really professional already at a young age. Me, at 16? I was a joke. I didn’t care about practice at all. And he was doing everything.”
Pilic recalled that one day at the academy, Novak, then aged 13, passed him while he was having lunch, a full 20 minutes before his lesson was scheduled. He was on his way to warm up. Pilic said to him, “Aren’t you a little early?” To which Novak replied, “I’m not going to waste my career.”

Novak’s former manager, Dirk Hordorff, said that once when Novak had just finished a tough training session in the Austrian Alps, and all the other players were preparing ready for a party, Novak asked him, “If I go out tonight, would it be good for my tennis?”
“Just go,” Hordorff replied. “You worked hard, drink a glass of wine…”
But Djokovic cut him off saying, “I didn’t ask you, ‘Would this be good for me?’ he said. “I asked, ‘Would this be good for my tennis?’”
The financial pressure on Srjdan back home was mounting. “Nobody cared,” Goran said. “Srjdan is going around, trying to convince people, please invest. Like you are selling fruit or dairy. Here’s an investment for you. It was a very tough time.”
Djokovic had to skip international junior tournaments that other top juniors, such as Andy Murray, currently the No. 4 player in the world, and seven days older than Djokovic, routinely played in. The Djokovics’ had a difficult time enough paying the $3,000 per month discounted price at Pilic’s academy. The Serbian Tennis Federation with its meager funds could not help the Djokovics’ either.

But wherever he went in Serbia, Srdjan kept selling his son and his tennis future like an investment and raised money for his eldest son’s hefty expenses. Pilic said, “Serbs point to the bombing as the crucible of Djokovic’s competitiveness, but he also had no choice. The family had put all its chips on him.”

Novak did not let his family down. By 15, he was playing in pro events and had a world ranking. By 17, he qualified for his first slam tournament in the Australian Open and by 18 he reached the third round of Wimbledon and broke into the Top-100. Having just turned 19, Djokovic won his first ATP titles at Amersfoort and then Metz. He ended 2006, ranked No.16. When Srdjan tried congratulating him for reaching the Top 20, Novak stopped him. “When I’m number one,” he said, “then you can congratulate me.” His ultimate goal was to win Wimbledon, a childhood dream.

The Djokovic domination train officially pulled out of the tracks with the 2010 Serbian Davis Cup victory against France in the finals. It was Serbia’s first Davis Cup title and Nole, who won both of his singles rubber matches in the finals, gave notice of his big game potential. It also solidified Djokovic as a national hero. He already had brought an ATP tournament to Belgrade that his family managed—Goran is the tournament director—and he had started a tennis academy there as well. There was talk back in 2006 when money was thin between the Djokovic’s and England’s deep-pocketed Lawn Tennis Association about the possibility of the 18-year-old Djokovic and his brothers switching nationalities to play for England, but Nole nixed the idea. Unlike Seles, the last great Serbian-born player, who tiptoed around her heritage and finally changed her citizenship in 1994, becoming an American, Djokovic stayed and prospered.

“Novak Djokovic, said Vladimir Petrovic, Serbia’s ambassador to the United States, “is the single biggest positive p.r. this country’s ever had. He’s a positive face of the new democratic Serbia.”
In 2011, Djokovic was nearly unstoppable. He accomplished the goals he set for himself as a seven-year-old, becoming the No. 1 player and winning Wimbledon. He also won 43 matches in a row to open the season, tying Bjorn Borg for the second-longest win streak in a season. Only Guillermo Vilas with 46 in 1977 had won more consecutive matches.
If there was a beaming pride to all Djokovic had achieved coming from such a stark background, Serbia’s national hero was not afraid to express it.

“I feel a need to represent my country and to allow people to see in public my story and how, not just me, but all the tennis players, how we grew up,” said Djokovic. “Especially the generation that had to go through wars and difficult times where you didn’t have much support [and] didn’t have professional facilities that could accommodate you and allow you to develop yourself into a professional tennis player.

“Most of us were spending quite a few years out of our country for those practices and trainings. But we were always coming back and reflecting on that mentality. I believe that that’s actually something that made us stronger and gave us the opportunity to be where we are. Because not many countries in the world have been through what we have been through.
“We know how it feels to lose close ones,” he continued, “lose your own people in war, touch the bottom as a country in every aspect of life, and then stand up and be stronger, be reborn out of it. It’s just the situation that nobody likes to remember, but it’s part of our lives. We are just proud to reflect on that wherever we go and say, ‘Okay that’s something that we been through.’”

When Djokovic finally lost it was to Federer in the semis of Roland Garros, the French Open, and the Federer-Nadal rivalry was still the greatest in tennis, and perhaps all of sports. “I’m going to play against Nadal, my main rival, in another Grand Slam final,” said Federer. “We live for these moments.”

Nadal beat Federer to win his sixth French Open, but at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open finals, Djokovic recorded four-set wins against Nadal. Djokovic had not only toppled the greatest rivalry in the sport’s history, Federer v. Nadal, but he had also beaten Nadal in six finals in 2011, all coming in either slam or Masters tournaments. Suddenly, the perennial best man was the groom. For four years, Federer and Nadal dominated; now, at least for one year, Djokovic pretty much owned them.

“I get afraid from winning,” Djokovic said about his past encounters with the two legends. “I had too much respect for them.”
Djokovic was playing at a superhuman level and his comportment on and off the court mirrored his sensational play. His relationship with his coach, Marian Vajda, was solidified after Vajda had taken a secondary role when Djokovic hooked up with former Top-10 American pro, Todd Martin, in 2010. Martin tried to change Djokovic’s service motion and that only worsened matters. But then Vajda returned as his primary coach. Nole already had a serious and enjoyable relationship with girlfriend, Jelena Ristic, whose beauty catches many cameras lenses as she roots ardently for Novak from the player’s box. Gone mostly from Djokovic’s box were his parents and brothers, replaced by Ristic, Vadja and his physiotherapist.

Gone also were the mid-match retirements that plagued him and his reputation. Roddick mocked him at the 2008 U.S. Open, saying, “Bird flu, anthrax, SARS…common cough and cold. He’s either quick to call the trainer or he’s the most courageous guy of all time.” Djokovic had tried breathing exercises with a Belgrade opera singer to try to cure his respiratory problems, but the breakthrough came when he met a holistic nutritionist named Igor Cetojevic. Schooled in Chinese medicine at a college in Belgrade and with a degree from the Indian Institute of Magnotherapy in New Delhi, Cetojevic streamlined Djokovic’s diet and cut out gluten altogether. He lost a few pounds, yet felt stronger.

“The whole allergy thing was coming from gluten,” said Djokovic. “I didn’t know. We grew up on gluten—bread, pasta—and I was consuming it in big, big amounts. I guess I’m very sensitive.”

He no longer dribbled the ball incessantly before serving in pressure situations knowing that it annoyed his opponents. He had stopped making impromptu impersonations of other players, such as Nadal’s funny mannerisms (incessantly picking at the shorts by his crotch) that cast Djokovic as more of a card than a top player. He played and conducted himself like a champion. He won the Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Award and even softened the dark image surrounding him fostered by his background, his peltlike hairstyle and his outwardly pro-Serbian stances. In the past, Djokovic had addressed raging crowds in Belgrade, protesting Kosovo’s U.S.-backed declaration of independence by saying, “We are united and ready to defend what is ours. Kosovo is Serbia.” But as Djokovic’s ranking rose, his declarations became less strident. More recently, in response to questions about Serbia and its questionable history and politics, Djokovic has replied, “That’s not a simple question. And there’s not a simple answer that can be given.”

When asked if he used revenge as a tactic to fuel his own success, Djokovic shot down the notion. Djokovic was all about accentuating the positive.

“I don’t believe in revenge,” he said. “I believe revenge is a very negative sensation, very negative word. So I don’t like to revenge anybody for anything. I believe you just need to focus on every match. That’s it. Have this positive mindset, not thinking about revenge, because that’s takes out the negative emotions.”

Though Djokovic didn’t believe in revenge, Nadal, Federer and even the fourth sidekick, Djokovic’s junior rival, the Scotsman Murray, were plotting revenge against Djokovic. They didn’t fully believe that the Serb could continue his torrid winning ways.
“Probably the level of Novak today is not forever,” said Nadal. “I’m going to be here fighting all the time, waiting for my moment to beat him another time. I am in one of the best moments of my career. Still it wasn’t enough to beat him. I have to play longer. I have to play more aggressive. I have to have less mistakes.”

Federer calmly asserted that he could still beat Djokovic. “I know I can beat Novak on any surface, Federer said. “I’ve done that in the past. Just because he’s on a great winning streak doesn’t mean he’s unbeatable.”

As the 2012 season began, all eyes were on Djokovic. Could he keep up his blistering pace of winning 12 tournaments and three slams? Was a Grand Slam possible, winning all four majors in a single season? (The term was coined in 1933 referring to the card game, bridge, when a player wins all the tricks in a hand. The Australian, Jack Crawford, came into that year’s U.S. Open having won the first three slams.)

The only male player to win a Grand Slam since 1969 and the advent of the Open Era was the Australian, Rod Laver in 1969. (The American Don Budge won one in 1938 when only amateurs played grand slam events). But in 1969, the Australian Open was not considered anywhere near on par with the other slams and three of the four slams were played on grass. If a Grand Slam was attainable what about a Golden Slam, the four slams and the Olympics, which in 2012 was being held at Wimbledon, the most famous tennis grounds in the world. Even a “Djokovic Slam” (a Career Grand Slam) was attainable if Nole won the first two slams of 2012, thus stringing his 2011 Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles with the Australian Open and Roland Garros. And if Djokovic were to beat Nadal at Roland Garros, he would not only dethrone the winner of six of the last seven French Opens, he’d also record a Career Slam, winning every major at least once, a feat accomplished only by Laver, Agassi, Federer and Nadal in the Open Era.

One could argue that winning a grand slam event in tennis is the hardest individual feat in all of sports. Over the span of two weeks, a player must win seven, five-set matches, often having to beat–as Djokovic did at the 2011 U.S. Open–the No. 3 player in the semis (Federer) and the No. 2 player in the finals (Nadal). Matches are best two-out-of-three set contests during all the tournaments of the year except at Grand Slam events, where for two weeks, four times per year, a player is required to win three sets instead of two to claim victory. The physical effort and energy burnt over the course of an arduous Grand Slam match can be equated to that of Australian Football player during the course of two-and-one-half matches or cycling up Alpe D’Huez in the Tour de France. It’s analogous to the highest possible physical output of any elite athlete.

A tennis player must win a match rather than run out the clock or build a big lead and then milk it. Matches have turned after one player dominated the first two sets, but could not sustain his strong play and nail down a third set victory. Some slam matches last more than five hours, especially at Wimbledon where there is no fifth-set tiebreaker and John Isner and Nicolas Mahut played a three-day, 11-hour-and-five-minute, 70-68 final set-match in 2010. One bad day, one wayward match, and winning a slam title is history. It’s a single elimination competition, brutal in its ability to weed out the weak.

A player can have all the shots and look the part of a champion to the T, but if he doesn’t know how to win, close out matches in almost every type of match and against almost every type of opponent, winning a slam is out of the question. Gordon Forbes, a former South African player who wrote the iconic tennis book, A Handful of Summers, back in 1978, penned, “When you consider becoming a world-ranking tennis player, you need to decide above all else just how you are going to go about the business of winning matches. A section of your game has got to be lethal; able to destroy your opponent. You need at least one really great shot or attribute around which to anchor your game.”

Djokovic, Nadal and Federer, being players for the ages, have both one phenomenal shot and attribute that make their games transcendent. Djokovic’s great shot is his backhand. It is the best backhand in the game in technique, efficiency, power and angle. His money shot is the down the line backhand that he usually hits for outright winners. The attribute is an ability to raise his game to another level when a match gets close. When he’s down, Djokovic plays fearless tennis and goes for his shots even more. He goes from being a dangerous player to a lethal one. Justin Gimelstob, an analyst for the Tennis Channel, says about Djokovic, “There’s a big difference between playing Djokovic close and beating him.”

Djokovic describes his uncanny ability to win close matches this way: “It’s true, especially in the big events and matches, the winner is decided by small margins, a couple of points. That’s all there is.”

Nadal’s signature shot is his forehand that he rips with tremendous velocity and spin making the ball bounce higher when it clears the net and tougher to return. His forehand has been clocked at 4,900 revolutions per minute, and an average of 3,200 rpm’s. In contrast, Federer and Murray’s forehands travel at 2,700 rpm’s and Pete Sampras and Agassi’s were clocked at 1,800. Nadal’s ability to block out all distraction and transform himself into a player with no weaknesses is his remarkable attribute.

As he puts it, “You have to cage yourself in protective armor, turn yourself into a bloodless warrior. It’s a kind of self-hypnosis, a game you play, with deadly seriousness, to disguise your own weaknesses from yourself, as well as from your rival.”
Federer’s serve is what sets him apart from most of his opponents. It is like a viper in its quickness and sting. He once served 50 aces, the equivalent of winning 12 ½ games with a single shot, in his 2009 Wimbledon finals victory against Roddick. Grace and confidence define his attitude on the court. It is remarkable, in his long career—Federer hit the pro tour at 17—he has only dropped out of one match, and that was before the match began. As the foremost genius of the game, the Swiss maestro plays in such fluid fashion with little or no delays—there aren’t the marathon bouncing sessions before serving, the constant towel-wiping or the medical timeouts Djokovic and Nadal tend to take—that his matches flow rather than stop and start. He acts and is treated as the ordained king of the sport.

“It’s staggering that I’ve been able to play so well for so many years now and stay injury free,” Federer readily acknowledges.
So as the 2012 Australian Open commenced on January 16th Down Under, a lot was riding on the outcome. Djokovic, Nadal and Federer were the top-3 seeds in the tournament, and as such, neither could face each other until at least the semifinal round. Which meant that before the “business end” of the tournament began, each player would have to win five matches before they faced their steepest challenges in the semis and the finals.

In the higher echelon of men’s pro tennis, it is said (and occasionally believed) that not much separates the No. 300 player in the world in talent from the No. 1. The No. 300 player has virtually all the strokes, foot speed and stamina of the top players, so on any given day, when his mind is right and he’s in the zone, the No. 300 player could knock off the No. 1. In the 2002 Wimbledon, George Bastl of Switzerland upset the seven-time Wimbledon champion, Sampras, in five sets and Bastl was ranked No. 145. So a player of Djokovic’s, Nadal’s and Federer’s caliber has to be careful negotiating through early-round matches in Grand Slam events where lower-ranked players are very keen on making a name for themselves by claiming the scalp of a champion. Often, the best chance to take out a top-ranked player—just like the best chance to knock an ace baseball pitcher out of a game is in the early innings when he hasn’t found his groove yet—is in one of his first few matches.

The defending champ at Wimbledon always opens the tournament on the first day playing the first match on Centre Court, but that is not the custom at any of the other slams, so Djokovic didn’t play until the second day of the 2012 Australian Open. He faced a little-known Italian player in the Rod Laver Arena named Paolo Lorenzi, ranked No. 109, and promptly double-bageled him in the last two sets, 6-0, 6-0. In fact, Djokovic lost a total of only ten games in his opening three matches against the Italian, a Columbian and the Frenchman, Mahut. (For the record and statistical geeks, Mahut played in 272 fewer games and two tie-breakers against Djokovic than he had in his record 2010 Wimbledon match with Isner.) Through the first week, Djokovic’s game-record was a convincing 54-10.

Nadal also did not drop a set in his first three matches, although he lost a total of 25 games. But it seemed almost a minor miracle that he` even took the court. The day before his opening match, Nadal said his knee popped while sitting on a chair in his hotel room. The Spaniard said he experienced “an unbelievable pain” and he broke down in tears, but an MRI showed no damage, and after a day-and-a-half of physical therapy and a lot of pain-killers, he took the court with his knee bandaged and shredded American qualifier, Alex Kuznetsov.

In the second round, the veteran German, Tommy Haas–who held the title of the greatest current player never to have won a slam until Murray came along and snatched that bill by losing in three slam finals without winning a single set–pushed Nadal, but succumbed in straight sets. While Federer also did not drop a set in his first three matches, he was helped by a walkover in the second round when his opponent, Andreas Beck of Germany defaulted. In Federer’s third-round match, he faced the dangerous, 6-foot-10 Croatian, Ivo Karlovic, nicknamed Dr. Ivo, and the first two sets were tight, 7-6 and 7-5, before Federer pulled away, 6-3 in the third set. In all, Federer dropped 23 games over his first three matches.

Besides Nadal’s temperamental knee, the biggest story of the first week was the new player-coach union of Murray and Ivan Lendl. Murray made the announcement just a few weeks prior to the start of the Australian Open and while some experts decried the move, others thought it a stroke of genius. Lendl, the eight-time slam champion, at 51 had never coached before. When he played most notably in the 1980’s, his game was to pulverize opponents with a big forehand and aggressive baseline play.
Murray is more the tactician and softball player, but the experts who liked the move thought Lendl could beef up Murray’s forehand and teach him to act more positive on the court. Murray had a habit of berating whoever was in his coach’s box–including master coach, Brad Gilbert, and his own mother, Judy–with profanities whenever his play declined. Lendl had also once held the dubious title of Best Player Never To Win A Slam, until he slayed that albatross by coming back from two sets to love and beat John McEnroe at the 1984 French Open. Murray was not part of the Big Three, but he was hovering just behind at No. 4, and with the possible exceptions of France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Argentina’s Juan Martin Del Potro, the only other man considered a threat to win a slam.

The second week of a slam is like a different tournament. The field has been narrowed from 128 players to 16 and each match is held on a show court. Djokovic faced the wily Australian, Lleyton Hewitt, who at 30 and with two hip surgeries under his belt, was very possibly playing in his last Australian Open. Hewitt, a fiery Aussie who had made the shout of “Come On!” with his signature fist pump after a great shot his rallying-cry (as Nadal would later make “Vamos!”), had been the best player of the 2000’s until Federer had come along. He had won two slams, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and he and then Agassi were the last two players under six-feet tall to ever win a slam.

When Hewitt came back to win a 55-minute third set against Djokovic, it was the first time in the tournament that the Serb had blinked. He closed Hewitt out in four sets, but his next opponent, the No. 5-seed David Ferrer of Spain, a 5-foot-9 pit bull of a player now had hope. If the severely diminished Hewitt could upend Djokovic even for a set, maybe there was a chance for Ferrer to really sink his teeth into him and draw blood. Sadly for Ferrer, this was not the case. After two tough sets, Djokovic dispatched Ferrer 6-1 in the final sets and Djokovic was into the semifinals.

Nadal played his countryman, the 30-year-old Feliciano Lopez, a hunky net-rusher who had only beaten Nadal twice in ten previous matches (both times on fast courts, grass and then indoor carpet), in the Round of 16 and he straight-set him. He had more of a problem with Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals, losing the first set in a breaker and winning the second set in a tight breaker, before he spun and ran Berdych into exhaustion and defeat. Federer and Murray joined Djokovic and Nadal in the semis, easily winning their two matches without dropping a set. Federer looked increasingly dominant in vanquishing 19-year-old Aussie phenom, Bernard Tomic, and the savage-hitting Del Potro.

After 10 days of play, 124 matches completed, the 2012 Australian Open had finally reached its “business end,” and just four men stood, the Big Three and Murray, the Big Potential. The first semis on Thursday pit Nadal v. Federer. It would be the 27th match in the greatest rivalry in tennis (*Footnote: The McEnroe-Borg rivalry only lasted 14 matches over four years and ended in a 7-to-7 tie with McEnroe winning three of their four slam encounters; Sampras-Agassi lasted 34 matches with Sampras winning 20 including six of their nine slam meetings). They had paired off against one another in a slam only once since Nadal’s wrenching five-set win over Federer in the 2009 Australian Open and that was in the finals of the French Open last year. Nadal had won that match and had dominated Federer 7-2 in slam competition. The last time Federer had beaten Nadal in a slam was almost five years ago in the 2007 Wimbledon finals. Overall, Nadal savored a 17-9 advantage over the king. Their rivalry dated back to 2004.

What makes the Nadal-Federer matchup so compelling is their contrasting styles. The Spaniard is all swash-buckle and swooping strokes, running back to the baseline for the pre-match warm-up like a drunken sailor on leave and employing a game of spin made for clay but after four years on tour, suited to win on grass and hard courts as well. He doesn’t so much beat opponents as he crushes their spirit with his style of deep, searing spin-dominated rallies. He can hit aces after improving his serve and using its lefty slice to open up the court and he can also volley—he’s probably the best doubles player of the Big Three even though Federer won Olympic gold in doubles in 2008—but Nadal would rather stay back and inflict punishment with his heavy angled shots.
Federer is subtler in style, he cuts and nicks opponents into submission and just generally makes them feel incompetent. The Swiss maestro did not barge into the winner’s circle as quickly as his more precocious Spanish upstart (Federer didn’t win his first title until he was 20 and he was 21 before he won his first slam; Nadal captured his first title at 17 and won his first slam at 18), but he has won 16 slams compared to Nadal’s 10. His game and winning temperament took longer to develop. He flicks and whips his racket like a magic wand. On any given ball, because of his versatile repertoire of shots, Federer has so many options that his game resembles more a Van Gogh brush stroke than Nadal’s Jackson Pollack splash.

While both players grew up on clay courts, Federer’s game is suited better for fast surfaces. Unlike Nadal, he hits his backhand with one hand and so is much quicker in transitioning to net where his balletic volleys and smashes draw comparisons to Baryshnikov movements. Everything from the way they grip their rackets to the way they approach a match psychologically differ greatly. Nadal is the force of nature while Federer is the Artist with a capital A. If Federer has an Achilles heel besides handling Nadal’s high-kicking forehands with his one-handed backhand, it is that he is inordinately stubborn. He wants to win playing like a champion, being the aggressor and showcasing his versatility. He knows this is the best way to beat Nadal. But he also wants to win by beating Nadal at his own game, too, staying back at the baseline and winning long arduous rallies. Against Nadal, it almost seems that Federer would prefer to lose gallantly than win ugly.

Nadal has always seemed to innately understand Federer’s wish to be regarded as the greatest and he gladly plays into it. He openly states that Federer is the superior player even as he racks up wins against him. But this time out, perhaps learning from Djokovic’s winning strategy against Nadal, Federer chose to exploit Nadal’s backhand — just as Rafa has historically worked on his. Instead of staying back and engaging in long rallies, Federer hugged the baseline until an opening presented itself, then struck quickly.
Serving at 4-3 in the first-set tiebreaker, Federer pounced, sprinting into net when Nadal floated a slice return and drilling a forehand volley–that clipped the baseline–for a winner. On the next point, he came in again and hit a sweet, short backhand half-volley Nadal couldn’t retrieve. On his third set point, Federer converted when Nadal’s backhand went long. The first set was Federer’s 7-6.

If a five-set match can have one turning point, it came in the second set. Serving at 2-3, Federer again approached the net and hit what seemed a winning backhand smash. Nadal ran ten feet wide of the doubles alley and sent a running forehand past a flat-footed Federer. Rafa celebrated with a vintage, spinning, scissor-kick, fist-pump combination, and you could feel the momentum shifting. Nadal converted on his third break point with another freakish passing shot, this time on the backhand wing, and easily took the second set, 6-2.

The third set, crucial in Nadal-Federer battles when the first two sets have been split, runs Rafa’s way after the players return to the court from a 15-minute Australia Day fireworks display. Both players knew beforehand of the halt in the match for the fireworks, but Federer, the purist, is clearly upset by it. He loses eight straight points when they return to the court, but somehow rallies to send the third set into another breaker. Federer needs this breaker more than Nadal does since the Spaniard has won the last two five-set matches they’ve played so Federer would prefer to close the match out in four sets. Perhaps feeling that urgency, he makes two backhand errors, mishits a forehand that Nadal then hits for a backhand winner and falls behind 6-1. Valiantly, Federer rallies again to close Nadal’s lead to 6-5, but he misses a running forehand that could’ve drawn him even.

In the fourth set, the play reaches its highest quality, but Federer can’t seem to stem the tide. He has two break points with Nadal serving for the match at 5-4 and seems to be in a commanding position when he approaches off a forehand deep into the corner. But Nadal somehow tracks it down and sends up a high lob that lands smack on Federer’s baseline. In shock, awe or maybe weariness, Federer hits the overhead wide and then hits a forehand long—the way a lot of Nadal-Federer matches end with a Federer forehand error—and the match is over.

Afterward, Federer defended himself against his own greatness. He had won so consistently for so long that now his losses seemed to hurt his many fans—and even the media–sometimes more than they did himself. “It’s not that bad; don’t feel too sorry for me,” he said buoyantly trying to buck up his supporters and downplay the loss. Trying to explain Nadal’s dominance over him in this their record-tying tenth Grand Slam match (McEnroe-Lendl also faced off in ten slams), Federer said, “I always think he plays a bit better against me than against other players.”

Though the four-time Australian Open champion made 36 unforced errors off his forehand–-including one on Nadal’s second match point–-he said he didn’t think that was his downfall. “I’m always going to miss forehands because I’ll have to go after the ball,” Federer said. “If I just put it into play, he’ll smack it.”

When asked if he would watch the rest of the tournament—as he is often asked after being knocked out of an event—Federer turned a bit testy: “It’s always a classic question. I don’t know why you care. I don’t know what my plans are quite yet. I doubt it because I don’t switch on the TV a whole lot when I’m elsewhere with the family, so…”
The answer shined a spotlight on the faltering king’s possibly greatest asset and biggest failing: his unfailing confidence. As if Federer doesn’t need to watch his main rivals play against each other–possibly to scout their games to learn how to play them better–because if he’s on his game, he still doesn’t believe he has any peers. When asked if losing another key match to Rafa upset him, Federer dismissed the notion.

“At the end I care about my titles, if I’m happy or not as a person,” he said. “Head to heads for me, I mean, are not the most important.”

It was more of a Federer being Federer, refusing to be defined by his now near five-year drought in beating his chief rival in Grand Slam matches. The media would not curtail Federer’s career as it once did his idol’s, Sampras, by badgering him over a decline in his game. Federer was no Borg, who walked away from the game at 25 when he was still the No. 1 player or Sampras, who retired just after his 31st birthday after winning his final tournament, the 2002 U.S. Open.

Nadal, after doubling up on Federer in victories over their rivalry—18-to-nine–again played the “I’m not worthy” card.
“For me, is an honor to play against Roger,” Nadal said afterward, calling Federer the greatest player in history, along with Rod Laver. “I always saw him in front of me, one player better than me.”

Djokovic and Murray followed the next day on Friday. The Scot had reached the semis of all four slams in 2011, but he had lost badly to Djokovic in the finals of the 2011 Australian Open. As Brad Gilbert, his former coach and current ESPN tennis announcer, said, “Murray consistently wins 15 sets in slams, but he needs to find a way those last six at the business end. That’s when he’s playing his main rivals.” Murray, seven days older than Djokovic, had actually fared well against his junior rival, winning four of their ten matches, and their last outing in the Cincinnati Masters finals last summer when Djokovic retired down a set and 3-0.

This time they battled deep into a fifth set. Murray actually had taken the decisive third set in a breaker, but then came out and let Djokovic cruise through the fourth set, 6-1. This was not the same Murray, though, who had been dominated by the Big Three in slam matches. Known for his dour demeanor and snapping at his box, Murray was the model of good behavior with the leather-faced Lendl looking on. The rallies were scintillating displays of power, angle and chess-like probes and defenses. Forever the counter-puncher, Murray was now dictating play with a big serve and a buggy-whipped cracking forehand. His tricky two-handed backhand opened up the court and his foot speed enabled him to run down balls that seemed destined for clear winners.
But the self-belief Djokovic talked about—“I guess the winner is the one that believes in victory more than the other”—led him to victory in this 4-hour-50-minute match. He took a 5-2 lead in the fifth set, but when Murray then reeled off three straight games to tie the score at 5-5, the Scot had three break points at 0-40 on Djokovic’s serve. If he broke, he’d serve for the match.
But Djokovic produced some big first serves, and on the one point when Murray had an inviting opportunity, with the ball sitting up in the middle of the court, he dumped a regulation backhand into the net. The Serb then promptly broke Murray in the final game when Murray’s backhand malfunctioned again and Djokovic was on to play Nadal in their third consecutive slam final.
Murray, like Federer, was not devastated by his close loss; instead he drew encouragement from it. “Everyone always says to me, ‘Andy’s too passive; he doesn’t go for his shots enough,’” said Murray. “I think tonight I did that. I was moving well and dictating a lot of the points, which is important. After last year, the year that Novak’s had, I think there’s a very fine line between being No. 1 in the world and being 3 or 4. I feel tonight that I closed that gap. My job over the next two or three months is to surpass him and the guys in front of me. It will take a lot of hard work, and hopefully I can do it.”

Just as Nadal had been mentally tougher than Federer, Djokovic held his nerve better in the key moments than Murray. Now Nadal’s steel would be tested once more. If he were to lose to Djokovic, it would not only mean he was the loser of seven straight finals matches to his younger opponent, but he would also go down as the only man in the history of the sport to lose three Grand Slam finals in a row.

What ensued was a classic match, the longest slam final in history–a sweat-drenched, sneaker-squeaking 5-hour-and-53-minute endurance contest that ended at 1:37 a.m. on Monday morning in Melbourne. Djokovic became the fourth man in the Open Era after Laver, Federer and Nadal to win three consecutive slams with his 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 victory over Rafa in the Australian Open final.

This pair had never gone to five sets against one another as Federer and Nadal had ventured three times before in Grand Slam finals. But when Nadal won the last four points to finish off an 88-minute fourth-set breaker, a fifth set beckoned. Nadal dropped to his knees on the baseline and pumped his arms at that point, celebrating as if he’d won the final. All he’d done was prolong it. With pockets of the capacity crowd cheering “Rafa, Rafa, Rafa” and other pockets of supporters waving Serbian flags and chanting, “Nole, Nole, Nole,” Nadal entered territory he was very familiar and comfortable in. The Spaniard had only lost the 2007 Wimbledon finals to Federer in five sets, but he had beaten him in the 2008 Wimbledon and the 2009 Australian Open in five sets.

In the fifth set, Nadal had his hands on the throat of Djokovic’s neck. Having just broken the Serb to take a 4-2 lead, Rafa had and an open, down the line backhand lined up for what would be a 40-15 lead. Instead, he double-fisted it wide and the score knotted at 30-30. Djokovic started to look better physically and Nadal started to make some unforced errors, giving the Serbian some extra seconds between points to get his heavy breathing under control. After getting back on serve at 4-4, Djokovic kissed the crucifix around his neck twice.

With Nadal serving, the pair engaged in a 31-shot rally that Nadal finally won when Djokovic committed a backhand error. In the aftermath of that epic point, the Serb fell flat on his back on the court, fully stretched out, arms over his head, while Nadal doubled over on his side of the court, hands perched on his knees. It appeared Djokovic was ready to throw in the towel, but he said he never thought about staying down.

“At that point I was just thinking of getting some air and trying to recover for next point,” he said. “Thousand thoughts going through the mind. Trying to separate the right from wrong. Trying to prioritize the next point. I’m playing against one of the best players ever–the player that is so mentally strong. He was going for everything or nothing.”
When Djokovic got the final break of the match to go up 6-5, the Serbian fans jumped up with their flags and screamed while the rest of the crowd sat in stony silence. After kissing the crucifix around his neck repeatedly in the later games, Djokovic openly prayed out loud and looked upward as he got within points of sealing his victory.
“I was trying to find every possible help and energy that I possibly can,” he said. “It paid off I guess.”

When it was over, Djokovic hugged Nadal at the net and then tore off his sweat-soaked black shirt and headed toward his supporters in the players’ box, pumping his arms repeatedly as he roared. It was raw emotion he couldn’t contain. He walked over to his girlfriend, his coach and the rest of his support team and banged on the advertising signs at the side of the court. The previous year, when he beat Murray in the finals in straight sets, Djokovic had celebrated to a rock band in the locker room. This year he performed a solo act of the AC/DC rock anthem, “Highway To Hell,” belting out a few lyrics and strumming an air guitar.

The awards ceremony took place in the wee hours of the Australian morning. Both players had to sit down—too weary to stand–while the tournament officials and the sponsors conducted the proceedings. They said they actually enjoyed enduring the suffering such an enervating match inflicts on its contestants. And in the end, both thrived on it, but Djokovic rode his exhaustive effort all the way to his fifth Grand Slam victory, and his fourth in 12 months.

Nadal took an existentialist approach to his loss.

“That’s nice be there fighting, trying to go to the limit, bring your body to the limit of his chances,” Nadal said. “Something I really enjoy, and I always said is good to enjoy suffering, no? So when you are fit, with passion for the game, when you are ready to compete, you are able to suffer and enjoy suffering. So today I had this feeling, and is a really good one. I suffered during the match, but I enjoyed all the troubles that I had during all the match. I tried to be there, to find solutions all the time. I played a lot with my heart. I played a lot with my mind, and is something that is nice to be around and not just play tennis.
“I wanted to win,” the warrior continued, “but I am happy about how I did. I had my chances against the best player of the world today. I played one against one. For a long time I didn’t felt that I was playing in less advantage than him, you know. I didn’t play at lower level than him for a long time, so that’s a very positive thing for me. I am very happy about my mentality tonight, the mentality worked like in my best moments.”

Djokovic reveled in the pain and suffering of the experience as well, but he also adopted the stance of the diplomat that he clearly enjoyed, extolling the virtues of not only the match, but tennis, itself, when played at its highest level. (He was constantly using the term, “our sport,” in interviews as if he was the central caretaker of the sport’s image).
“I think it was just the matter of maybe luck in some moments and matter of wanting this more than maybe the other player in the certain point,” Djokovic said. “It’s just incredible effort. You’re in pain; you’re suffering. You’re trying to activate your legs. You’re going through so much suffering your toes are bleeding. Everything is just outrageous, but you’re still enjoying that pain.
“But these kind of matches I’m a professional tennis player. I’m sure any other colleague tennis player would say the same: We live for these matches. We work every day. We’re trying to dedicate all our life to this sport to come to the situation where we play a six hour match for a Grand Slam title.”

Once again, Djokovic had out-hit the human backboard, out-ran the indefatigable Nadal, but this time–unlike their six previous finals meetings in 2011—they played a historic match that had gone the limit in sets, human will and competitive guile. Even with Nadal, Federer and the whole men’s tennis world shooting at him, Nole still sat firmly atop his throne. As Roland Garros beckoned, with a possible Career Grand Slam, and beyond that a Grand Slam run ahead, Djokovic was also treading on perhaps, the unimaginable conquest of winning a Golden Slam in this Olympic year. Only Steffi Graf in 1988 had ever achieved such a feat. As he left Australia, the once Dark Prince of the game was seeing the light.

“This is very encouraging for me,” Djokovic said. “I’m going to have more confidence. One player (Laver) has done it, so it is possible. Obviously the times are different and tennis nowadays is much more competitive and much more physical. And that makes that challenge more difficult to achieve.

“But everything is possible,” he continued. “The facts are that I’m at the peak of my career. I feel physically and mentally at the peak. I feel strong, I feel motivated. I feel eager to win more trophies.”

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  • Steve · April 25, 2012 at 12:21 am

    Opening sentence should read: “Unbelievably, Federer had not beaten Nadal on a hard outdoor court, on a Sunday, with sunny weather, after 2pm and while wearing yellow since 2005.”

    Not so unbelievable but Federer did beat him on a (indoor) hardcourt in 2010 at the World Tour Finals. Weak premise.

    I couldn’t read the whole thing but, yeah, after turning 30 you will probably win less and maybe improving your diet as a professional athlete is helpful.

    I think the wars in Novak’s area of the world impacted tennis much more in the Agassi/Goran Wimbledon final. No way Agassi wins that under normal stresses.

  • Martin G · April 25, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    I think it’s Nole’s hard childhood that is big advantage for him.
    Coming from wealthy surroundings and be great champion is much harder. Yes you have money for lessons and all else but you have too many distractions and too many temptations, hard to get that single focus to be number one.

    Nole has no choice, he knew what family was doing (going in debt, taking from his brothers to give to him). That will put enormous pressure and motivation upon you.

    Nole has changed significantly in last 4 years. He was a strange one for many years. Same as Aggassi. But he is willing to learn all the time and he is making changes that are necessary for him to be number one and great ambassador of tennis.

    On thing that bugs me is his way of dropping matches.
    He did it in Cinni last year and now in Monte Carlo.
    Strange behavior.

  • Steve · April 25, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    Sampras made it look so easy, even winning a slam at 19 yrs old. Everything looked effortless in his early career. According to his book there was no crazy stress from his family or surroundings.

  • Dan Markowitz · April 25, 2012 at 3:36 pm


    Good to see your comments. It’s hard to say whether a modest upbringing or one of wealth is the best route for a tennis champion. Nole’s route certainly had the most hardship. I don’t know if Murray had a lot of money in his family, but he did go to Spain and there was never mention that his family didn’t have ample means to pay for tournament expenses.

    It used to be you had to come from wealth or at least, upper-middle class background to make it in tennis. The caveat is if you’re parents are tennis pros like Wayne Bryan and his wife or your kid gets discovered, a la Agassi, and gets an early free ride to an academy.

    Obviously, Nole wasn’t destitute. His parents owned a restaurant, they were presumably professional or high-level skiers, a sport that takes money. I just think if you have to foot the bill of a champion junior player without help, you need to have personal wealth.

    But the mindset you talk about, that Nole as Nikki Pilic said, believed that if he didn’t make it in pro tennis, his family would flounder, is the key, I believe. And you have to be super competitive. John McEnroe didn’t have that single-minded focus that Nole had, but he was greatly talented and an amazing competitor. Once he got a little older, and became No. 1, maybe the “I have to win” side of him slowed down some and he became beatable. Nole doesn’t look like he’s slowing down.

    But you’re right, his losses in Cincy and Monte Carlo and Dubai, are troubling because he looks like he doesn’t compete as hard.

  • mat4 · April 25, 2012 at 5:13 pm


    I have read the first part of the chapter, and I would like first to congratulate you for the inspired beginning. I have no doubts that the book will be an palpitating and absorbing read.

    On another side: I would like to advise you to avoid political controversies: officially, Serbia has not committed genocide. It is perhaps your belief, but you could have problems for that. (Why don’t you look at the site of “Defense and Foreign Affairs”?) You could use a neutral formulation, like “accused of”.

    I shall now continue reading. Once again, thanks for that almost poetic piece of… tennis prose!

  • mat4 · April 25, 2012 at 5:16 pm


    Once again, I don’t agree with you that Nole doesn’t compete that hard. I think his game is in plain mutation.

  • Dan Markowitz · April 25, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    Thanks Mat4, I’ve decided not to talk about politics and stick with tennis. I know more about the latter, but I will look up your reference.

    Nole doesn’t compete hard? I’d never say that. I think he does pick his rare spots to take it easy sometimes. I didn’t see the latest Rafa match. It seems his body/psyche weren’t ready to compete which is different than occasionally taking it easy.

    What is more alarming this year is the up’s and down’s in his matches, but he almost always seems to get it together again in crunch time.

  • Steve · April 25, 2012 at 6:58 pm

    I’m pretty sure every pro player has tanked at least once for whatever reason. You have a bad day, mentally not there and you check out.

  • Venus Williams2 · April 25, 2012 at 10:06 pm

    Nice chapter.
    I believe, according to an article I read recently, that Novak’s parents were amateur skiiers who gave people lessons.

    I think Murray’s mother was the tennis coach for Scotland so she would probably have a decent salary.

  • mat4 · April 25, 2012 at 10:27 pm

    Finished the first chapter.

    A few notes: I often read your racquet reactions blogs on tennis.com, and I come to expect more from you. The intensity of the text is a bit uneven, and I am certain you could do better. In fact, I would like to have a more personalised view, more of your own reflections on the nature of the rivalry, on the evolution of the game, on Rafa and Novak growth, on Fed’s technical reaction. Sometimes, it looks like deja vu, or that the narrative flow is too fast.

    I feel that you have much more insider’s knowledge to share, for one, and that you can write even better.

    Then, I am an European, and a linguist. So maybe I am perhaps not the adequate reader. It is just my point of view. All in all, it looks pretty good, but I have no doubts that you have much more to offer.

  • Dan Markowitz · April 26, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    I think in a book of this nature, the first chapter has to set the scene–Nole, Rafa & Roger, who they are, what’s their pecking order now and in the past few years and what’s at stake.

    That’s what I tried to set up in this first chapter. The more personalized view of their rivalry, games, competitive natures, will come in the following chapters and really flesh out the book. My problem is that I’m having trouble getting into the French Open and Wimbledon. And I don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars in tickets. So I’m setting my sights on going over for maybe one of those events and then taking it on the road to Canada, Cincy and of course, back home for the U.S. Open. And in those North American events, I will try to talk to the Big 3 a lot, evaluate their games in depth, and make the startling conclusions and incisive insights you’ve come to expect of my writing.

    Along the way, I plan on talking to John McEnroe about this trivalry and how hard it is to make it to the top and stay there when younger competitors are breathing down your back. I’ll talk to Mats Wilander and hopefully, Lendl, too. I want to get champions’ insights into this remarkable Big 3 in this exceptional year with the Olympics making 5 slams and 3 players who have a great chance of winning each major event.

  • ranjolie · April 27, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    Roger actually earn his 16th. Grand Slam victory at Australia 2010, his record breaking was at Wimbledon ’09.

  • ranjolie · April 27, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    Roger earned his 16th. Sorry.



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