Serb raises the bar

Tennis : With three Grand Slam singles titles this season, Novak Djokovic has emerged as the man to beat

Serb raises the bar

The sellout crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium was cheering Novak Djokovic’s miscues and even disrupting his service motion on occasion, all with the common goal of trying to propel Roger Federer across the finish line at the US Open.

But Djokovic said that was not the way he processed the partisan noise.
“What I was actually doing was trying to play a mind game with myself,” he said in an interview last Monday, a day after his triumph. “They would scream, ‘Roger!’ and I would imagine they were screaming, ‘Novak!’”

There may truly be no hope for the chase pack if Djokovic is able to use even one of the most hostile crowds in the recent history of Grand Slam finals to his advantage.
“Hats off to Djokovic for handling that, because frankly it’s not easy in terms of the nerves,” said Severin Luthi, Federer’s co-coach.

Djokovic has had to develop an arsenal of defence mechanisms to meet the challenges through the years, from his childhood in war-ravaged Serbia to economic hardship and early separation from his parents to trying to make a place for himself at the top of a game where the spoils and allegiances were neatly divvied between Federer and Rafael Nadal.

But look who has won three of the four Grand Slam singles titles again this season, losing only in the French Open final. Look who has a record total of more than 16,000 points in the computer rankings, the most since a new point scale was put into place in 2009. And look who has clinched the year-end No 1 ranking in mid-September.

“I go through a lot of emotions on the court, like anybody else,” Djokovic said. “I just think, over the time, I’ve managed to learn how to use the experience and how to handle and cope with this pressure in tough moments. But I also think a lot comes from my character and from the fact that I grew up in circumstances which were not very ordinary and maybe not the circumstances that most of the guys grew up in.”

To a neutral observer, it was an extraordinary situation, with the New York crowd more interventionist than even the crowd at the Wimbledon final in 2013, which succeeded in helping Andy Murray end a 77-year drought for British men at the All England Club by beating Djokovic.

But Djokovic, well accustomed to playing the villain to Federer’s white knight, said he was not a bit surprised by the dynamic.

“I came out on the court knowing what to expect,” he said. “I was ready for it mentally, and I think that has helped me keep my cool in the toughest moments.”

Djokovic looked more relaxed on Monday morning as he shuttled from television studio to television studio. His voice was hoarse, his hedgehog hair slightly mussed and his right wrist and forearm scraped after a fall he took in the first set.

The first part of the interview was conducted in the back seat of an Open van; the second part occurred during a walk through Central Park en route to a photo shoot. It was hardly his first September stroll there. After staying in a private home in Alpine, New Jersey, during the last several Opens, Djokovic and his family decided to return to a Manhattan hotel.

“One of my close friends said, which I think is right, is that this city has so much energy going on that if you stay in the city for a certain amount of time, it gives you a lot of energy,” Djokovic said “But if you stay for too long, it can take your energy.”

Djokovic will return to Monaco with 10 Grand Slam singles titles in hand, trailing Nadal (14) and Federer (17). No three men’s tennis contemporaries have managed this until now — in part because in the game’s amateur era many of the elite soon turned professional, thus becoming ineligible for Grand Slam play.

But the Open era, which began in 1968, has lasted nearly 50 years. By any measure, the current period is an exceptional one, with Djokovic, Nadal and Federer all searching for trump cards: from Djokovic’s gluten-free diet in 2011 to the cutting-edge return referred to as SABR (Sneak Attack by Roger) that Federer had used to great effect over the last month, but not to such smashing success on Sunday against Djokovic’s lobs.

Clearly resistant to SABR’s charms, but not openly critical, Djokovic appears to have figured out long ago that taking shots at Federer rarely gets you anywhere. Best to extol his evident virtues and beat him when it matters most. Djokovic has won their last three major matches: the 2014 and 2015 Wimbledon finals and this Open final.

Surpassing Federer’s record total of 17 majors once seemed implausible, but at this stage, it simply seems daunting.

“I would not be truthful to you if I would say I’m not thinking about it,” Djokovic said. “Of course I am.”

At 28, does Djokovic still have enough time?
“If I keep taking care of my body and have this kind of a mindset where I keep the same lifestyle, I think it will give me longevity, and if it gives me longevity, I think I have a fair chance to fight for a few more Grand Slams,” he said.

Djokovic can see himself playing, like Federer or Serena Williams, into his mid-30s. “It’s kind of a game to me now, kind of a quest, seeing how far I can go,” he said.

The walk in the park was coming to an end, and the phalanx of photographers waiting for Djokovic by the rocks overlooking Wollman Rink was coming into view. Time for one last query:

What would it take for a Grand Slam crowd to support him the way it supported Federer on Sunday?

Djokovic thought for a moment, then answered — as is his way — in paragraphs, not a sentence or two.

“Honestly, I think, first of all, it’s about enduring,” he said. “True tennis fans respect somebody that shows commitment to the sport — not just shows results, but shows his passion for tennis and respects them, the tournaments, the opponents and the sport in general. I think it’s also about what you represent. Are you respecting the true life’s values, and are you a man of conscience that plays tennis but also gives back?

“I think the whole package is important. That’s what I try to do. It’s how I’ve been brought up, and I hope the crowd recognises that. But in the circumstances, when I’m playing against Roger at this point, I cannot expect something else.”

Last question navigated, Djokovic stepped onto the rocks with the Manhattan skyline behind him and the Open trophy back in his hands.

Tourists, caught by surprise by the apparition, rushed with their smartphones to join the professionals. As they pressed forward, leaves rustled nearby in the breeze. There was a slight morning chill. Another summer is almost over, but Djokovic is still No 1, still very much in his prime.


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