Wednesday, 30 November 2011
Novak Djokovic - GQ Ace of The Year
Before we talk about Novak Djokovic, the best tennis player alive, let's take a minute to talk about the other guy. Pick a guy. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, for instance. In the Wimbledon semifinals, July 1. It's as good an illustration as any of what happened this year in the sport, which is to say that it is simultaneously astonishing and inadequate. Officially, at this moment, Novak Djokovic was the No. 2 tennis player in the world. Tsonga was No. 19 but on a roll, having just beaten Roger Federer.
So it's the third set, Djokovic having won the first two. Tsonga delivers a nasty, hard serve, but Djokovic handles it, a sharp return from the left baseline. On the next exchange, Djokovic hits it gently, pulling Tsonga to the net. Then he sends Tsonga the other way, for a retreating over-the-shoulder backhand. Tsonga's been up and back, and Djokovic hasn't stirred from the baseline. A few hard baseline shots later: Djokovic moves up for a passing shot, and Tsonga lunges to fight it off, falling to the grass as he dumps it softly crosscourt—where Djokovic, sprawling to the court himself, sends it back. Tsonga, only half-risen, slashes at it and hits it long.
A few measly inches, and Tsonga would have had it. Could have had it. The rally was a magnificent display of daring and agility: the shift from power to guile and back again, the final flurry that put both men on the ground. Tsonga even went on to win that set, before falling in the fourth.
But fall he did. Djokovic scattered points and matches like that behind him all year long. It took another three days, and the final against Rafael Nadal, to elevate Djokovic to the ATP's No. 1 ranking. By then, however, the ATP's calculations were merely catching up to what was already true: Suddenly, amazingly, in 2011, Novak Djokovic became the most powerful force in tennis.
Tennis was not expecting this, a year ago. Tennis did not see the need. Tennis already had written the script, and it was a perfectly satisfactory one, if you liked tennis. There, in the near court, was Roger Federer, the most wonderful and successful player anyone had ever seen, slowly beginning his natural decline as he entered his 30s. Across the net was Rafael Nadal, possibly—debatably!—superior even to Federer. Certainly younger, in his mid-20s; sleek and powerful like a Grecian statue, or a tawny replica of a Grecian statue made of expensive Iberian ham.
They would play each other, Roger and Rafa, age trying to fend off youth with grace and guts. Their rivalry would be beautiful and moving; fans would choose sides, pull for Federer to bravely turn back the clock, tell themselves they were seeing the greatest tennis in history.
Novak Djokovic? Somebody had to lose to Federer or Nadal in the semis. So bring on the rawboned Serb: a nifty returner, a locker-room cutup, a guy one ineffable degree shy of championship material. He'd won the 2008 Australian Open, OK, and he'd beaten Federer in a wild match at the U.S. Open in 2010, but he seemed to have bobbed up to his natural level. Nadal was 16-7 against him, and 5-0 in tournament finals; Federer was 13-6. To wrap up their 2010 season, both of them beat him at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. He was 23 and ranked No. 3, and after helping pull off a Serbian victory in the Davis Cup final, he was able to close out the year on a two-match winning streak.
Then the calendar turned over, and so did the sport. Djokovic beat Nadal on grass, on clay, and on hard court, in California, Miami, Madrid, Rome, London, and New York. He beat Federer in Australia, Dubai, California—three consecutive tournaments—lost an epic match to him at the French Open, then beat him again in Flushing. Roger and Rafa seemed as excellent as ever. But Djokovic had crossed over into the world of the '85 Bears, Pedro Martinez, Usain Bolt. It didn't matter how good anyone else was.
What changed? Djokovic is in Monte Carlo, and someone has handed him a cell phone with a dying battery to answer questions about the inexplicable. "I've matured as a player," he says. "I've matured as a person. I know what to do. I know how to handle my life, my career." His training is the same as ever, he says. He has the same coaches he's had for years. He switched to a gluten-free diet, which he believes helps with his breathing and allergies, and which has introduced him to a worldwide community of people eager to recommend specialized restaurants, but he doesn't give credit to food magic.
"I just wasn't consistent enough, and I just wasn't actually believing enough that I could get it together and start winning more major events and be No. 1," he says.
Maturity, he says. During Wimbledon, as he closed in on the No. 1 ranking, he spent his time off the court trying to get a squirrel to eat out of his hand and tweeting about his progress. "The squirrel was one of my close friends in London," he says. "Unfortunately, I didn't see her after I won the title, because I wanted to celebrate it with her." You can also find video online of Djokovic's long, wry face jutting out from under a silky blonde wig, as he vamps his way through a fake commercial in the guise of Maria Sharapova.
The impressions, he says, were something he did as a young boy, after the famed tennis coach Jelena Gencic picked him out for training, the way she'd picked out Monica Seles. (This is not necessarily the biography of a regular-guy champion.) "As a kid I was creative," he says, "and I was dreaming of having one stroke out of each player who was on top of the tennis at that time, you know. Let's say Agassi's return, Sampras' serve and attitude on the court, and, I don't know, Rafter's or Edberg's volleys and forehand, and these are the strokes that I kind of imagined to have, and I impersonated those players, and that's how it started."
It's a goof, and it's not a goof. "I always try to have something that keeps my mind relaxed, keeps my mind a little bit off tennis," he says. The most electrifying thing about watching Djokovic, the quality that pulls in a casual viewer, is that even while playing at the highest level ever attained in his sport, some piece of his mind seems still to be functioning on the normal human plane. He has not turned his back on lesser life-forms, in the manner of a Michael Jordan, and vanished into a rat tunnel of competitive rage. He places another shot improbably—yet certainly—inside the line. He turns away and pumps his fist, not in abandon but with a sort of narrow-eyed, thoughtful glee. It's as if he's as awed as we are by what he can get away with.