On one of my frequent visits to tennis.com, I came across Peter Bodo’s article on some comments made by Wilander and McEnroe on the competitive dynamics of the top four in men’s tennis. One insight that I found particularly accurate was Wilanders proposition that Federer would continue to win several majors since there was no indication that this trend would stop. He noted that Federer may be faltering at the masters tournaments but his golden streak in grand slams was still in fruition and his win at the US Open sill suggests most compellingly that the grand slams victories are still coming – albeit with a greater struggle. This comment as penetrating as it was had already struck me after Roger won the US Open so convincingly and it was McEnroe’s comments on the gloominess of Novak Djokovic’s current status in the men’s game that I found most provocative and perhaps even a tad dejecting. McEnroe seems to suggest that there’s a kind of ‘lostness’ in Djokovic’s current game; a kind of dissipating forcefulness; a tiring attitude that manifests in an unwillingness to dig deep and bring forth that great yet very elusive magic that lies within him.
The Problem with Pride:
It is certainly true that Djokovic has lost that spark and vigour that we all saw most glaringly at the Australian Open. However it seems to me that it is not lost in the same way one would loose their heart or soul but rather in the same way one would loose their TV remote. Loosing the TV remote is an annoying event – you can sometimes search strenuously while one of your favourite TV shows is on and yet not find it; it can sometimes take you to the brink of fury but in the end you know its very close and although you loose it, you know you’ll find it if you really want it. This I believe is where Novak is. At Cincy, Djokovic came out in the semi-final against Nadal and played some his best tennis of the year. I watched that match with amazement as his shots in the first set appeared to be getting flatter, faster and closer to the line while Nadal scurried across the baseline struggling to return the shots. Why did Djokovic find the remote here and not at the US Open when it really mattered? Djokovic has always been labelled as being a somewhat haughty and arrogant young man and although I believe that some of these charges are unwarranted, he does have a great deal of pride and it is this pride I feel that has to be challenged for him to play his best tennis. At Cincy, he played so luminously because his pride had been injured by the spotlight having being moved to Nadal and Federer; he was relegated to being a third wheel and that, he could not tolerate and so his response was breathtaking tennis. The problem with pride however is that although it can be very motivating, it can also be unstable and an unreliable source of inspiration. Sometimes it’s worth fighting for and other times unless it’s really been harmed, it lies there waiting for more injuries until it once again regains its rage and ferocity.
Booms and Busts:
Djokovic used this pride at the Australian Open when it was severely harmed at the US Open and again in Cincy against Nadal. However the instability of this source of motivation was demonstrated quite clearly when he was unable to use it to play his best tennis against Andy Murray in the finals. The problematic issue therefore for Djokovic is motivation and where to get it from; clearly victories alone aren’t enough and he needs to look carefully for what brings the best in him. His vigorous and aggressive game against Roddick at the US Open was not only some of the most energetic and bold tennis but also some of the smartest; obviously unless his emotions are rattled, this type of game doesn’t seem to emerge. It is indeed this issue that Novak needs to investigate most tenaciously; why his sensitive emotions need to be provoked for his best game to be released and how to achieve what Federer has over the last 5 years – composed and stable motivation. If Novak fails in this psychological task, his career will always follow the booms and busts of a developing economy. In an age where offensive baseliners have become commonplace, Novak has made it look special and unique with a sleek and jumpy style of play that is so representative of the vitality of youth and it would be a great pity for him to be remembered as just another baseliner just because he was unable to dig deep whenever the score and not just his emotions or pride needed a lift.