x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Novak Djokovic calls all the right shots

The best player in men's tennis could have been content as world No 3 behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Novak Djokovic, in action against Sergiy Stakhovsky in Dubai on Wednesday, was not content being just world No 3.
Novak Djokovic, in action against Sergiy Stakhovsky in Dubai on Wednesday, was not content being just world No 3.

Inasmuch as tennis provides a sort of MRI scan of its players and shows their innards to us spectators, it certainly has revealed the inner Novak Djokovic as miles beyond sturdy.

So while the list of things to appreciate about this No 1 player can get lengthy, I would choose as most impressive the degree of will unveiled during his humongous last 14 months.

With only fussy Federer fans or nattering Nadal fans or general thick heads unable to appreciate Djokovic by now, other people might choose other attributes.

He does have that story of hailing from a childhood in a country (Serbia) and an era (wartime) that could not have helped.

He has the kind of intelligence that makes people look at the eyes and think, there's somebody at home in there.

He has won the last two Australian Opens with commendable variety, both while dominant through straight-set semi-finals and final (2011), and while weathering 7-5-in-the-fifth semi-finals and final (2012).

After spending enough weeks at No 3 through the years that the rankings computer may have come to think he belonged there – you know, the way computers are always deciding things for us before we actually type them- somehow he disagreed.

You could like all of that, and you could like that after years of pounding shoulder against concrete, he has blasted through the Federer-Nadal wall while that wall still looked impenetrable.

Still, I like to think of it this way: he came from a country without a tennis past. He reached No 3 and occasionally No 2. He won the 2008 Australian Open. He all but got fingertips on the 2007 US Open title before letting Roger Federer slip away, a matter oft-forgotten since.

He made a lot of money. He had as an address Monaco, which does not dredge sympathy. If he wanted to rationalise being "only" No 3, he could always blame two guys from a corner of Switzerland and an island in Spain, and say he happened to come along in one of the towering eras.

He might have been the most capable No 3 ever, and anybody who judged him as lacking something, well, that person would be sort of annoying.

Yet add it all up, and it wasn't enough for him, which is what fascinates me because I think many world-class sorts would have found No 3 sufficient, and that a good handful have.

"Well, you know, knowing all the athletes from Serbia, the tennis players, we all have that hunger for success," Djokovic said on Wednesday after grinding through a thick matter with the 74th-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.

"You know, always a dedicated mindset, and wanting to succeed and wanting to get as far as we can go. You know, reach the international stage. We all dreamed of being the best in what we do.

"I was one of those people. Even when I reached No 3 of the world and won a grand slam, still was a lot of good success that I had until the end of 2010, but I was just not satisfied enough.

"You know, I needed to make that extra step. I wanted to achieve my life goal and to win Wimbledon and more grand slams to really prove to myself in the first place and to everybody else that I have the qualities to be the best."

So after 2010, he made hard changes in diet, made himself very, very hard to get a ball past instead of merely very hard and made his way to the title-trophy presentations at Wimbledon and New York, plus those Melbournes.

He made it through a four-set US Open final against Nadal that looked like some fresh wrinkle in human evolution, people moving so well it had grown near-impossible to hit winners.

Clearly, he would not be one of those guys who could stand spending the rest of life wondering what-if. Clearly he really meant he had to prove it to himself, himself being rather demanding.

Now he says occasionally that he aims to cull as many slam titles as he can, with no diversion or burnout or satisfaction or any other such goblin in sight. Had he said that even 12 months ago when he won here in Dubai by suffocating Federer in the final, it still might have sounded slightly wishful.

Now it comes from somebody full of certainty. The game has taken its MRI scan or x-ray or whatever, and it has found stuff maybe even sterner than the stuff required to get from a country in crisis to No 3 in the world. How compelling.