x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Novak Djokovic may have finally cracked code

It took over a year for the Serb to lift his seventh grand slam trophy yesterday, but he seems set to improve on his 50-50 win-loss ratio in major title clashes, writes Graham Caygill.

Unlike on occasions in the past when he could not live up to the challenge, Novak Djokovic kept his cool after losing the fourth set on Sunday to clinch his seventh grand slam title. Carl Court / AFP
Unlike on occasions in the past when he could not live up to the challenge, Novak Djokovic kept his cool after losing the fourth set on Sunday to clinch his seventh grand slam title. Carl Court / AFP

Back in the summer of 2002, England cricketer Michael Vaughan fell short of scoring his first double hundred in Test cricket twice in three matches against India, settling for 197 and 195.

Vaughan was asked after the second match at the Oval if he thought there was a problem in his game, given his failure to get to the 200 mark.

“It is not the worst problem, is it?” he said of his apparent predicament.

It was a scenario to which Novak Djokovic could relate, ahead of on Sunday’s singles final at Wimbledon.

Going into the match with Roger Federer, Djokovic’s record in recent grand slam finals was hardly overwhelming, having lost five of his past six title matches.

The Serbian had no issue getting to the deciding match of a major, yet his Achilles heel was the punchline of the tournaments. That underscored why Sunday’s success was so important for the 27 year old, who prevailed in five sets over Roger Federer 6-7, 6-4, 7-6, 5-7, 6-4, as tears flowed on the court afterward.

It was not just about winning his seventh major, or that the victory put him back atop the world rankings. It was that he demonstrated that he could win when the biggest prizes in the game are at stake and underlined his status as one of the top players in the game.

It seems crazy to even have to question Djokovic’s record, given the fact the Serbian has not been outside the top two in the world since March 2011. But great players are judged on the majors and there was nothing great about Djokovic’s record in finals.

Back in January 2012, he had been on a superb run, winning four of five majors, claiming the Australian Open twice, Wimbledon and the US Open. But since then, only the 2013 Australian Open had come his way, with two French Open final setbacks, one Wimbledon defeat, and two finals defeats in New York.

It was not as if Djokovic played badly in these matches, losing three times to Rafael Nadal and twice to Andy Murray.

But it led to question marks about the ruthlessness of his game and his inability to close out big titles.

Sunday’s win raises his record in grand slam finals to seven wins and seven losses. A 50 per cent success rate is not awful, but when compared to Federer’s mark of 17-8 or Nadal’s ledger of 14-6, it pales.

Djokovic is an ambitious guy. He broke through in 2008 with his first major in Australia, but he was blanked over the next 11 as he fell into the role of next-best behind Federer and Nadal.

He worked hard on his game to make the step up, changed his diet as he went gluten-free, all with the aim of being the best. That led to his superb 2011, when he won three of the four majors and embarked on a winning streak that lasted 41 games.

Winning only two majors subsequently seemed like a poor reward for his form, play and place at the top of the game. Only one of those final losses, last year at Wimbledon, came in straight sets, but playing well in defeat was never going to console the Serbian.

At Wimbledon, he looked determined from the start and his mettle was proven in his five-set victory over Marin Cilic in the quarter-finals, then reaffirmed when he got the better of the in-form Grigor Dimitrov in the semi-finals. There were plenty of opportunities for Djokovic’s resolve to slump in face of the spirited play of Federer on Sunday.

To lose the first set on a tie-break after losing only four points on his own serve must have been galling.

He was broken when serving for the match at 5-3 in the fourth set, wasted a championship point in the following game, then blew the set completely. That had to be traumatic.

But Djokovic kept his cool. Not even a pesky fifth set was going to deny him a second career win at the first tennis tournament he watched as a boy on Serbian TV.

He staved off the break points he faced in the seventh game, and finally in the 10th game of the set, he lifted his arms in jubilation after Federer put a backhand into the net.

Back at world No 1, the aim for Djokovic is to build on the victory and now stamp his authority on the game for the rest of the year and into 2015. The second half of the North American hardcourt season is now ahead, arguably played on Djokovic’s strongest playing surface, culminating in the US Open at the end of next month.

Djokovic has reached the final at Flushing Meadows for the past four years, but has won only once, so improving that statistic will be the next clear objective.

The good news is, the previous time he was champion at Wimbledon three years ago, he took home more winning silverware in New York eight weeks later.

Judging by Sunday’s show, there is no reason why history cannot repeat itself.

gcaygill@thenational.ae

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