Novak Djokovic: Playing Like 1
Next time you watch Novak Djokovic playing on the specific side of the court at the top end of your screen – try placing a coin at each location on the other side of the court, where the ball lands during a long rally. I bet that pretty soon you would have filled the bottom of your screen with coins all over. Such is the nonchalance with which the world numer two moves the ball around, before the rally is over. He does it with such consummate ease that it almost seems pedestrian. Last evening when he played Juan Martin Del Potro, Djokovic consciously moved him from side to side constantly keeping him off balance – its second nature to him.
The match had its share of crests and troughs – and the apex was perhaps reached too soon for a typical rambunctious New York audience, inside the cauldron of Arthur Ashe on a warm summer evening. The more you watched Djokovic from the baseline, you simply cannot escape a feeling that this was not ordinary tennis predicated on mundane (and henceforth – conventional) baseline principles. Djokovic’s game is not merely evolutionary – but it tends towards Revolutionary. Evolution is a part of the game, and is perhaps the only consistent underlying theme in such a global sport. Its evident as light and day – evolution, the counter-punchers today have more power than the ones of yesteryear (Murray, Hewitt and Chang). The power servers of the previous generation can at best be considered as, solid in today’s climate – if one only considers the serve speed as the governing metric. However, true champions in any ara, remain as champions in other eras. A Sampras or Federer will preserve their excellence independent of whether they play with robust graphite rackets, or the more gentler wooden rackets. There is little doubt that the game evolves constantly with time.
What makes Djokovic’s game tend towards revolutionary is the fact that nothing in his game stands out as remarkable. Sure – that “Better than Sliced Bread” backhand is indeed his biggest strength, but he wins matches deriving from a myriad of strengths other than that backhand. It will not be an understatement to claim that Djokovic’s game is not very remarkable – and that will be the biggest compliment you would have paid him. Its his economy, efficiency – and an almost ruthless lack of moving parts that engenders such a lean and mean Serbian ball machine. He qualifies as a counterpuncher, and an extremely offensive one at that – but if you have boxes with many options on what type of player he is, you will think thrice before selecting the “counter-puncher” option. Similarly, he qualifies for the playing styles of a defensive counterpuncher, a ground and pound baseliner, and an offensive baseliner – all different shades of the ubiquitous modern baseline game, and all of them to a certain degree fit the unique Serb. But, none of them completely define him, because he does many of them ever so excellently – and that remains his biggest strength. From a playing style perspective – there isn’t a clear box that you can tick to define and perhaps – describe Djokovic.
As Del Potro rifled his serve at speeds that would have done a seasoned marine proud – time and again the returns came back, with both depth and speed. There is a certain sense of incredulity you experience, as time and again Djokovic returned serves that you had a hard time seeing with the naked eye. In his attempt to wrestle control of the match out of Djokovic’s hands – the Argentine red lined his baseline engine towards the closing stages of the second set. In the tiebreaker, Del Potro unleashed his beast of a forehand with ruthless consistency, only to see them all come back – too many times back for his liking. It was not the mere defensive skills of the Serb that left you gasping – it was something completely different. Djokovic does not merely defend – his scintillating defensive skills does not lead to him merely prolonging the point by hitting one weak response after another. If he did that he would have been toast as turkey on thanksgiving – against Del Potro. Djokovic’s does not defend with a defender’s mindset – his defense helps him respond with at the least, a neutral shot in the middle of a brutally physical rally. The response might not lend him an advantage in the point, but neither does it render him a disadvantage – and on the dead run, you’ll take the latter each time. Make no mistake – the Serb is by far the best returner and defender on hard courts on the men’s tour at present. Defense does win championships – if you defend like Djokovic.
At one point, you wondered if this was the defining set of the tournament ? If Djokovic can take the best of a former US Open Champion, and wrestle the set out of his hands – then its going to take nothing short of a jaw-dropping performance from Ferrer, Murray or Berdych, to send the Serb packing. The next time when the camera focuses on the returner at the court-side angle – look at how Djokovic’s legs look. Roddick’s calves almost resemble a wood like robust profile – and Federer’s is much slimmer. Djokovic’s legs have all the strength they need, but they are wiry and supple, and highly elastic. His elasticity helps his movement around the court, and to do those splits on the dead run on a hard court. They certainly aren’t as dense as Roddick’s – but they fuel his movement with all the strength he needs to derive from them.
After a long time neither Federer nor Nadal have reached the final four in a grand slam. Lack of a finishing shot will leave a weary Ferrer severely handicapped against Djokovic. It does really come down to either Murray or Berdych to stop Djokovic. Murray can potentially get through Berdych by extending the match into overtime, but no one would be surprised if the Czech finds himself playing for the title on second Sunday. Berdych has looked ruthlessly clinical from the baseline until now in the tournament – and Murray needs to be at his versatile best to stop the Czech. One does get the feeling that if Berdych needs to win the semifinal, he needs to finish business in four.
With that said, can either of them stop Djokovic in his quest for a second consecutive title in New York ? Not from what I have seen these two weeks – this is INDEED Djokovic’s to lose. At times I wonder, if the “two” before his name at the US Open needs to be replaced by its preceding number. It probably SHOULD, because he is playing like one. Today is one of the most exciting days on the tennis calendar – “Super Saturday” – enjoy the tennis, and don’t forget to say “AJDE”.