Better to be Feared than Loved?
Novak Djokovic has produced some incredibly memorable moments for fans. At the 2007 US Open, his impressions, even if mildly impious, won over the crowd. At the 2009 US Open, Novak had an impromptu hitting session with John McEnroe to repair damages with the New York crowd from a testy encounter with Andy Roddick in 2008. At the 2011 Australian Open, Djokovic danced with Kym Johnson on a practice court. Nole likes to be liked, and this is good for tennis in general.
However, Novak struggled with Andy Roddick in 2009 and 2010 after their 2008 US Open conflict. This losing streak made less sense when one considers that Roddick’s serve is the only area where he clearly has an advantage versus Nole. Given the disparity in each man’s return game; relatively speaking Novak and Andy should at best be a wash when it comes to who holds serve more easily. Yet, the Serb lost 4 consecutive matches to Roddick losing 8 of 9 sets prior to a one-sided win over Roddick in November 2010.
Roger Federer is a more talented and decorated player than Andy Roddick. That perhaps made Novak’s deference to Federer from late 2008 through August 2010 more understandable. After Djokovic drubbed Federer at the 2008 Australian Open, Federer and Djokovic contested a tension filled match in Monte Carlo. Federer vocally rebuked Novak’s parents and let his displeasure be known at Djokovic’s retirement from the match. At the 2008 US Open Federer entered the semifinal round coming off of a poor summer season. Federer raced through the first set, but Novak rebounded and took the second set. Crowd displeasure over the Roddick incident seemingly unnerved Novak in a tight third set and great serving from Federer ultimately turned a close match into something of a walk for Federer in the fourth set. Novak had success versus Roger in some venues during this time period, but his deferential loss to Roger in Cincinnati in 2009 along with a meek effort at the 2009 US Open semifinals did not bode well for Novak ever supplanting the Swiss. Roger began to speak positively about Novak’s personality and what he brings to the tour. To my mind, it came across as Federer saying, “So long as Novak knows his place in the pecking order, I am happy to say he’s great.”
Arm Chair Psychology?
Players from the former Yugoslavia who either played or came of age during the Yugoslavian Civil War have left interesting marks on the world of professional tennis. Croatian Goran Ivanisevic may have been a European counterweight to Pete Sampras had his mental game been sturdier. Mario Ancic, despite his obvious talent, never quite recovered from illness and became an attorney. Serbia’s Janko Tipsarevic has a philosophical mind and Dostoyevsky’s words tattooed on his body.
Russian literature, law degrees and emergency Goran are great, but elite athletes have to be single minded. War time tragedies obviously detract from that focus. The word asceticism comes from the same root word as athlete. Athletes who cannot filter out white noise in life tend to struggle. Andre Agassi’s book Open bemoaned his 1993 consecutive break-ups with his girlfriend and then his coach. Sure those events can impact a player’s psyche. War is a stress that is different by kind rather than degree from coaching strife and an up and down love life. War might make a player think there are things more important than a tennis ball. The upside of this is that a player such as Tipsy may walk onto court not overly awed by Roger Federer or Andy Roddick. Why be intimidated by a tennis player if tennis losses are far from the worst thing that can happen to a person? Then again, the laser-like focus needed to bear down on an opponent can at times leave such a player (see Tipsarevic vs. Fernando Verdasco at Oz 2011). The impact of Djokovic’s war torn upbringing is unclear. He obviously carries a sensitivity to his nation’s past with him today as his victory speech in Australia demonstrated. Maybe Novak carries an aversion to personal conflicts because of the war, or perhaps Novak just likes to be embraced due to his gregarious nature. Either way, tensions with Roddick and Federer seem to have hurt Novak’s results in the past.
US Open 2010 as a Turning Point
At the 2010 US Open, Novak shed the vanilla efforts of US Open 2008 and 2009 and stood toe to toe with Federer. He saved match points and won in 5 thrilling sets. Novak then pushed Rafa in the final round despite not serving at a high level. Winning the 2010 Davis Cup undoubtedly gave Nole, already holder of a slam title, a season ending title and an Olympic Medal (Bronze 2008), a keystone achievement from which to build. The 2011 Australian Open semifinals featured a rematch of Federer and Nole. Novak won easily despite Federer invoking tactics he used in Monte Carlo in 2008. They worked once. I don’t think it is awful that he tried them again. Murray, who is much closer to Novak than Roger is, gave glances and stares to Novak’s team as well. Roger did however not speak about any of that in his post match presser. Novak had beaten him at the previous two majors and Roger simply said Novak was the better player that night. The message I draw from that is that Roger knows Novak has become strong enough that rebuking his team’s noise level is not going to work any longer. That well is dry.
Novak is now both likable and vicious. After beating Federer, Novak did not shy away from discussion of the London press corps and the pressures they place on Murray. Novak did not do anything wrong in talking about a real aspect of what Murray faces as a tennis player. However, Novak talking about these things does not strike me as a player shying away from conflict. Novak does not seem overly concerned about being loved by his peers. Dominance requires coming to terms with one’s excellence as compared to others. The day of Novak exerting his gifts on the tour may have arrived. That may give players more reasons to fear him and fans more reasons to love him.
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