x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Djokovic's reason to believe

Osman Samiddin: Djokovic is reactive, but it is not a bad way to be against players who try to shape the mood as forcefully as Federer and Nadal.

Talent may be inherent, but Novak Djokovic believes mental fortitude is not, and has to be developed over a period of time. Indeed, the world No 1 took years to reach the level of rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Talent may be inherent, but Novak Djokovic believes mental fortitude is not, and has to be developed over a period of time. Indeed, the world No 1 took years to reach the level of rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

To say that Novak Djokovic, to the less-nuanced eye, represents an unexceptional physical presence on court is not to be disrespectful. It is only to be reminded of the gravity of his feat in upending two players this year, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who remain such unique visual experiences.

Federer is a deviation from the modern player, both a throwback to an age gone and a guest from a future in which tennis has opened up its mind and deviated to possibilities beyond power and speed.

Nadal could only be from the future, albeit a less deviant one. But such is the curved whirl of the forearms and wrists and the thrust of the lower body, that watching him is not like watching a tennis player at all; it could be very intense and complicated performance art.

In watching Djokovic it is not difficult to conclude, on the other hand, that you are watching someone very much of this time. This is to say nothing of their games, only the spectacle they create, because no one has been better than Djokovic over the past year.

He is not only a reactive player, but it is not a bad way to be against players who try to shape the mood of matches as forcefully as do Federer and Nadal. The game has clearly been dipped into a pool of imagination this year but Djokovic has still been best defined by those traits of retrieval.

At his best this year, in the Wimbledon and US Open finals against Nadal, his approach to rallies was much as it has always been, like that of the pesky lawyer for whom there is a counter to each and every argument hurled at him until there simply is no argument.

There were unfeasibly long stretches in those two matches where a Djokovic error was only a idle rumour, a myth floated to maintain a facade of mortality and sanity.

There were lesser mistakes for much longer periods and lesser still the more trying circumstances became. To maintain that kind of focus, that drive, for any period of time is its own form of genius, even if it is not as shiny as other kinds.

It has been a beautiful year because of him, one of those moments in the life of athletes and teams when everything that makes them is suddenly magnified by – and allied to – a new-found intangible that makes them just that much more.

Like so many, he credits it to a mental awakening, probably even more than the dietary changes he made last year.

"This year, mentally, I am more mature, a stronger player. On court I believe in my qualities more, that I can win against Federer and Nadal and top players," he said.

"You cannot be born with this, you cannot just have mental strength at the start of a career. You have to develop it, to work and be patient. The process for some takes less time, for some longer. For me it took four, five years to really understand myself and perfect my game."

It has meant that watching him on occasion is to watch a man who knows he cannot be beaten, that no matter what day of the week it is, who the opponent is, what court they are on, what tournament they're in, a way to win will be found.

To be so inevitable, so that even if you didn't watch, you'd wake up the next morning to read about his win, has been a rare preserve, granted to very few in sport.

Federer has gone through such a period. Barcelona are in the midst of one. Australia, West Indies were once there on cricket fields. Jahangir Khan did so over the longest period in that other sport of rackets, squash. Mike Tyson once had it.

But genius ultimately must find place for longevity and so now comes the real year of Djokovic.

To match last year, better it, is not impossible because it has been done before.

"This year's success gives me reason to believe I can do it again, why not? It doesn't make sense to be anything other than optimistic," he said.

"I need to believe in my qualities and abilities, to believe I can repeat this. It is going to be an incredibly difficult task, but nothing is really impossible."

Federer and Nadal, who know well how far the bounds of possibility stretch, will be there to make sure it is, though.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae