Novak Djokovic: A man beyond the earthly constraints of momentum
Novak Djokovic’s defiance in the face of momentum has demolished the concept of a “big four” in tennis, writes Tumaini Carayol.
Serbia's Novak Djokovic kisses the men's singles trophy after winning his final match against Britain's Andy Murray at the Australian Open tennis tournament at Melbourne Park, Australia, January 31, 2016
When the 2016 men’s Australian Open final is replayed, dissected and discussed again, the points of discussion will be obvious and clear. Pundits across the world will rave over the virtuoso first set from Djokovic, a set which nuked all remaining beliefs that a “big four” still exists in tennis. They will talk about screaming, swerving backhand passing shot that gave Djokovic the opening break in the final set. They will discuss the Murray tiebreak horror that was an insult to his courageous final stand.
They’ll certainly also mention the moment the match slipped through Andy Murray’s grasp forever during the second set. But what will get lost in the mix is the precise dynamics that led Djokovic to flip a switch and scupper the chances of his challenger for good.
Aside from the vintage first set, the final round of Novak Djokovic’s 11th slam was not a good match, carried no surprises and it will not be remembered for the tennis. As the second set wore on and the slow burning tension flamed, Djokovic shrunk as Murray rose in stature. While Murray marched up to the baseline, Djokovic became passive. When Murray opened his shoulders and began to destroy backhand after risky backhand, Djokovic’s tactics failed him as he aided his old rival with puffballs straight in the hitting zone.
But one of the defining qualities of Novak Djokovic, a quality that flies under the radar of most pundits, obscured by forehands, backhands and more obvious aspects of his mental prowess, is the fact that he exists in a plane beyond the earthly constraints of momentum. While all tennis players are slaves to momentum, to purple patches and successive lost games, what separates Djokovic is his ability to flip a set and match on its head in the blink of an eye, even when he appears at his lowest point.
Serbia's Novak Djokovic plays a backhand return during his men's singles final match against Britain's Andy Murray on day fourteen of the 2016 Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 31, 2016
Image credit: AFP
During the final, such a moment came in the second set as Murray served at 5-5 40-0. Murray was grooving, his backhand singing and the momentum of the set carried him forward. Until it didn’t. Until, suddenly, though Djokovic had been passive and negative a point earlier, in a flash he was standing on the baseline and directing traffic. As he refused to miss and sent Murray scurrying from side to side, 40-0 turned into deuce and deuce turned into a break. Five minutes later, Djokovic was up two sets to love and the audience scratched their heads in wonder.
As Djokovic celebrates a victory that lifts him further into the stratosphere and further out of reach from the rest of the tour, small moments like these are important events behind Djokovic’s huge rise. So often Djokovic snatches sets and matches he seemingly has no business winning, capturing them before the audience is aware a theft is in progress, leaving onlookers wondering how on earth it happened.
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They’re a reminder that Novak Djokovic is the master of winning tennis matches. No man in the history of tennis has come nearly as close to uncovering the secrets of precisely what it takes to win a tennis match. He fully understands the nuances that drive every match, and he is so aware of the points that ensure which player takes the spoils in any match.
Throughout this fortnight he has shown all the range of his ability to win tennis matches: he wins in his abject nadir, as he did against Gilles Simon in the fourth round; he wins at his glorious best, as he did in his masterclass against the king of masterclasses, Federer; but he also triumphs in the grey areas that even the biggest champions struggle in.
It’s another piece in the vast jigsaw that has led Djokovic to the peerless position he finds himself in. Today, no player would be bold enough to call themselves a rival to the undisputed number one, particularly not after the violent manner in which he bestowed each of his three biggest rivals – Rafa Nadal, Murray and Federer - with brutal 6-1 opening set defeats over the first month of the year.
Djokovic has now captured 11 slams, levelling his tally with Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg, and he has pocketed 4 of the last 5 slams. He may be at the top of the game, but he still appears to be improving at a faster rate than the masses. It is inconceivable that his future won’t be filled with countless more victories. Already, he stands only three slams from Nadal and a realistic run at Federer beckons just a few years after the tennis world was told Federer’s record would stand forever. Novak Djokovic understands how to win tennis matches more than any other player in the history of men’s tennis, and winning tennis matches is what he will continue to do.