Thursday, 5 May 2011

Novak Djokovic - Dawn of A New Era?

This year alone the Serb has won the Australian Open, and tournaments in Dubai, Indian Wells, Miami and his native Belgrade.

And now the No. 1 spot in the world rankings could well be on the way to the man also known as 'Nole'.

So what can we take from this sensational run of form? Has the Serb reached the dizzy heights of his true potential or has Rafael Nadal, or more pointedly Roger Federer started to go stale?

Let's address one thing straight away - Nadal's form last year does him no favours in the world rankings, which are based on a rolling points total going back over the past twelve months. Last year, starting with the Madrid Masters, Nadal achieved maximum points at the Rome Masters, the French Open and Wimbledon; he can only better his total during the clay and grass-court season this year by surpassing last year's June quarter-final exit at Queen's Club. During Nadal's chart-topping form last year, Djokovic had comparatively little success - so he has everything to play for. It is Nadal's to lose.

Less than four months ago, Nadal's points total was almost double that of Djokovic. Now the Serb is getting dangerously close, and unlike Nadal he now has several chances to improve his tally from last year. Whilst the way the world rankings are calculated ultimately sets Nadal up for a fall, you can't take the chase away from the man who offers a bit of light relief from the monotony of determination that envelops the two players who sit either side of him in the rankings.

Djokovic's tennis talent is something of an anomaly. His father Srdjan was a skier for the former Yugoslavia, and there is a volleyballing back catalogue on his mother, Dijana's side. With no tennis players in his family, a very young Djokovic watched with curiosity as four tennis courts were built opposite the family restaurant in Belgrade.

Jelena Gencic, who trained the player as a youngster recalls: "I shall never forget the day when a four year-old boy came to my tennis camp with a bag neatly packed, as if for professional training. I asked him who packed it for him, and he replied he did it himself. When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, without hesitation he said 'number one in the world'."

2007 was undoubtedly the breakthrough year for Djokovic. At the start of the season, he was nineteen years old and ranked 16th in the world. By the time he left Wimbledon - he was number three. He had successfully positioned himself as a crowd favourite, with a touch of the entertainer.

Later that year, he became the youngest player in the Open era to defeat the top three players in succession, winning the Rogers Cup after defeating World No. 3 Andy Roddick in the quarter-finals, World No. 2 Nadal in the semi-finals, and World No. 1 Federer in the final.

In 2008, Djokovic became the youngest player to have reached the semi-final stage in all four grand slams.

He has won two Grand Slam singles titles, the 2008 and 2011 Australian Open championships and in 2010, he led Serbia to victory in the Davis Cup.
Djokovic is known for his coverage of the court, has a powerful forehand and a highly regarded backhand. His pace and the clean technicality of his groundstrokes are both crucial to his game. His serve has emerged for the better after a rocky period; at one time he was one of the only players in the top 50 averaging more double faults than aces.

So what has made the difference to the player in the last six months?

Last year there were some epic battles of will involving the 24-year-old - most notably his win over Federer in the 2010 US Open semi-final. Very close to losing, Djokovic rallied to win after five sets, saving two match points at 5-4 down on his serve in the final one. The win ended a streak of four consecutive losses in Grand Slam semi-finals. It was also Djokovic's first victory over Federer at the US Open in four attempts.


Here is a player who dug in, clenched his teeth and won. The confidence boost from out-toughing the likes of Federer, and continued good fitness will have paved the way. His role in helping Serbia win the Davis Cup in December would have been profound. Does he now possess the mentality and confidence of a true champion? If you learnt that Pete Sampras is his hero, someone who rarely got it wrong in times of immense pressure would that provide the answer?

Djokovic has his own explanation: "A lot of people have been guessing and speculating what the secret formula of my good form was but there is no secret, it's just that all the pieces have fallen into place after years of hard work and we are now reaping the rewards."

After the Federer-Nadal fog we've all been caught in for the best part of seven years it's refreshing to see that Djokovic is as well known for his off-court impersonations as his tennis. His repertoire began during the 2007 US Open with Federer, Nadal and Maria Sharapova amongst others. A quick search on YouTube will display the evidence. He was even persuaded to do his pant-pulling 'Nadal' at the 2009 Rome Masters trophy ceremony, after he had lost to the Spaniard. That takes a good sport. Oh, and he can also do a half-decent John McEnroe too.

It would be ignorant not to include Andy Murray in all of this. Rewind a year or more and Murray and Djokovic were equals - you could even argue that the Scot was the better player despite his counterpart's sole Grand Slam victory. Now they seem to be heading in completely different directions. You wonder if Murray could do with a crash course from Sampras too. It can't be easy when a nation's expectations and column inches await.

How curious then that the two players could have been fellow countrymen.

"A lot of people have been guessing and speculating what the secret formula of my good form was but there is no secret, it's just that all the pieces have fallen into place after years of hard work and we are now reaping the rewards"

After beating Greg Rusedski in the 2006 Davis Cup, Djokovic and his family were approached by the LTA with a view to changing international loyalty, and Djokovic playing for Great Britain. As a nation Serbia was still finding its feet, and the family understandably, might have been unsure as to where they stood.

They had successfully managed the same negotiations with Rusedski, luring him from Canada in 1995, but a similar outcome for the Serb was not to be. The opportunities and investment offered by the LTA were politely declined; and Serbia hung onto its favourite son in waiting.

So how will the likes of Murray, Nadal and Federer react to the ensuing Serbian onslaught?

Murray needs to find a full-time coach and fast. His mental game is frail, and I don't think he can't do it on his own. A continuation of his form in recent months will see him further slip away from a top-three he should have firmly in his sights.

You've got to feel for Nadal - he's in an impossible situation, a victim of his own success as far as the points ranking system goes. The Spaniard has had a few injury niggles since the start of the year, most notably when a hamstring problem got the better of him in his quarter-final match at the Australian Open against fellow countryman David Ferrer.

So should we be asking what's wrong with Federer? Winner of a record sixteen grand slam titles he lost his semi-final in straight sets against Djokovic in this year's Australian Open. His ranking has gradually slipped to third in the world: so is career on the wane?

You could argue that his serve doesn't have the same impact it used to, or that his stamina is slowing. Is it a case of distracted focus - he's just not as strong mentally as he was in the past? He's married with two children and a fortune beyond his needs - he can be forgiven for tennis not being his main priority, but does this mean he's lost his hunger?

Last April after losing in straight sets to Nadal in the semi-final of the Miami Masters, Federer ridiculed the suggestion he might be looking for a final shot of glory before retirement.

"I don't feel like I'm 35, like you guys make me sound I am," he told reporters. "I'm still only 29, and I have many more years left."

So can Federer mount a comeback? Will Nadal surpass his performance of last year? Might Murray pull himself together? Or keen on the diversion set up by the others who occupy the top spots surrounding him - will the savvy Serb sweep up the number one ranking and beat the lot of them?

I see it's turning out to be a very enticing season...

Courtesy: Sky Sports

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