ATP Tennis 360

October 27, 2009 10:43 PM

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Novak

Heading towards the Masters Cup, we review the season of the "Big Four". Let's start with the big entertainer Novak Djokovic.

Like many players, Novak Djokovic claims he doesn't pay much attention to the rankings. Probably he has some reasons. He's in the Big Four since 27 months, and considering the difficulty in breaking the duopoly of the “RR couple”, Novak has the chance of be n.3 or 4. And the implications in gaining or losing a position (respect to Andy Murray) are substantially non existent.

Anyway, although he has overhauled Andy Murray, who had surpassed him earlier this season, Novak Djokovic's year leaves around him an impression of unfinished, like he was caught in the middle of a growing process only half completed. It could be hard to understand how a season registering 17 quarters played out of 19 tournaments, with 13 semis and seven finals can be defined “disappointing”. But, for the third best player in the world, be the owner, in every sense, of the Belgrade Open (owned by his family) he won beating Kubot, and winning Beijing (over Marin Cilic) and Dubai (over David Ferrer) cannot compensate his lacks in the most important stages, where victory counted the most. For different reasons, he failed in the majors.

In Australia he confessed to have suffered the extra pressure he posed on himself, being the defending champion, combined with a growing unease with his new racket. The tournament ended with the heat exhaustion in the quarter against Andy Roddick, the same who defeated him at Wimbledon and went a backhand volley far from reigning on British lawns. Novak's season on the clay wasn't happier, and perfectly testified the hybrid condition of the Serb, great with lower-ranked opponents, but small with the best players: he's 4-9 with Federer, 5-14 with Nadal. His bleeding defeat against Nadal in the Madrid Masters semifinal, and the second surrendering in the title match in Rome, where the Serb was again defending champion, were the premises to a forgettable Roland Garros, where he failed to go through the quarterfinals (for the second and last time in the season: he lost in the first round in the first tournament he played this year, in Dubai).

Hard-court season in the United States went somewhere further, although he crashed before against the brightest Andy Murray admired in the last 12 months, then in the perfect match by Roger Federer.

The see-saw results, evaluation depending on what is potential is and what part of his potential remained unexpressed, were specular to his technical, tactical and characterial limbic progress. He has more virtues as imitator, as mimesis of someone else's style than capable of developing a really personal interpretation of the game.

He has a knack for upsetting many opponents with mid-match retirements and continuous, sometimes used as an excuse, calls to the trainer. The entertainer who hilariously joked and jousted with John McEnroe can also turn the public against him. He's definitely on the subtle red line between self-confidence and arrogance. But he's also a baseliner who dreams to become someone else, something else.

For this reason, in April he hired Gebhard Phil-Gritsch, who helped Muster become one of the fittest players in tennis, showing a determination in improving in an area where he used to appear weak, testifying his desire not to continue failing at the distance, as he did in four Grand Slam matches concluded with a retire in his young career. Before Us Open his coach, Marian Vajda, started to be joined by Todd Martin: one who certainly isn't a factor in the fitness matter (considered the amount of plasters and bandages he showed oncourt) but has a growing influence in the tactical evolution of Novak's game.

“We've put a lot of work into the legs, into my movement, because this is where I have a good feeling about my game. My advantage is my running ability. I like to be dynamic and show a lot of energy on the court” said to Paul Newman in an interview for “The Independent. “Before the US Open we had lots of time on the tennis court. We put a lot of work into it. I'm a temperamental player. I show my emotions, even in practice. When I get frustrated I throw my racket. Then I look at Todd and I'm kind of scared about what his reaction might be, what he's going to say. But he always says: 'The shot you made before the mistake was good. So keep it going.' He always tries to find the positive in everything. I think that's a great thing about him. He's going to bring a lot of freshness to the team.”

Martin is working to add variety to his game, to improve slice and volleys. Djoker, who played more than everyone else this year, 82 matches until now, usually arrived to the last part of the season without many points to defend, while this year he has to confirm the victory at the Tennis Masters Cup in London. On the grass he could need more easy points, more impact from his serve, he has to significantly the amount of direct points. Until now, in fact, he has an average of 5 aces per match, although he wins 73% of points on his first serve. Dynamism is probably the key to explain the 34% of 1st serve return points (42% of total return points won). Mentally he's positive, but not so cold: he saved 2 break points out of three and converted 4 out of 10.

On the grass of the O2 Center in London he needs to perfect these details to defend his title, and not to watch the dvd of the historical Wimbledon semifinal between his new “part time coach” and Malivay Washington.

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