Indian Wells, Quarterfinals
(1) Djokovic d. (12) Almagro 6/3 6/4
It’s curious where one’s mind wanders while watching Novak Djokovic idly construct a routine victory over the twelfth best tennis player in the world, who at this moment is Nicolas Almagro. Mostly it wanders into areas that are neither pertinent to a tennis column, nor necessarily safe for juvenile consumption. But occasionally it strays somewhere almost relevant.
It was last year in the Davis Cup semifinals that Djokovic famously substituted himself for Viktor Troicki, believing that even in his fatigued and wounded state he stood a better chance of beating Juan Martin del Potro in the live fourth rubber. It was a backhanded compliment to his opponent, delivered by way of a forehand insult to his notoriously flaky compatriot: ‘[We] all felt that I could go out on the court with maybe 50-60% and play better than Viktor at this moment.’ The universe wasn’t going to let that slide. It turns out that friends in very cosmic places have got Troicki’s back. Incensed, they decided to take Djokovic’s back, too, whereupon they snapped it. Trailing by a set and break, the world No.1 collapsed (melo)dramatically to the court. Sixty per cent became zero per cent. Surely even Troicki could have topped that.
Discounting that exhibition event in Abu Dhabi – as everyone does – it seems to me that Djokovic has never quite recaptured the immaculate state he sustained through the first nine months of 2011, a period in which he compiled what is surely the greatest start to a season so far, and looked for a while as though he was going to achieve the finest start possible, which is to say a start without an end. He didn’t, and his end was disappointing, marred by three further losses, a withdrawal, and no more titles. This year he has returned to winning, but he hasn’t quite looked the same while doing it. (I don’t mean to denigrate this, because it really ought to be celebrated.) Some have suggested that the task of repeating last year’s efforts is simply too daunting. Perhaps they’re right. He seemed to want it enough in Melbourne, although his eventual victory was for me categorically unlike the triumphs of last season, which were often terrifying in their completeness (Rome was perhaps the exception). Yet gods cannot be heroes, and this year’s Australian Open was altogether more heroic, through being infinitely more human. Whether one cared for the tennis or not, the struggle was inspiring, because, fundamentally, it was not titanic. If he does go on to fashion a season to rival his previous one, it will be, for me, an even more astonishing achievement.
I remarked after last year’s Miami final that Djokovic, somewhere, had discovered a mind free from doubt. I remain happy enough with how I said it, although even at the time I knew that as a theory it did not run counter to the general current of thought, which was that Djokovic had always had the game, but just needed to get his head right. This year he seems to have rediscovered his doubt. How many times at the Australian Open did he look like the old theatrical Djokovic, determined that no one in the stadium or at home should fail to note his breathing issues, all while hunching over and flexing his legs almost as frequently as Andy Murray tends to his own niggles, which is to say after every lost point. It was depressingly familiar.
What is unfamiliar was how he has kept on winning, anyway. He still outlasted Nadal in the final, and Murray in the semifinal. He still hasn’t lost at Indian Wells. I am coming to suspect that the entrenched notion that Djokovic always had the game, but just needed the belief is flawed, and lazy. The fact that it immediately shifts the discussion into the rarefied, not to say ineffable, discourse of belief should have been the first clue that there might be something awry with it. The particularities of tennis – technique, reaction-time, movement, tactics – are too quickly glossed over in favour of airy theories which cannot proved or refuted, and invariably rely upon the player’s own say-so. But maybe we’re all making it too complicated. Perhaps Djokovic is just better at playing tennis than he used to be. Perhaps he’s just become that much better at it than the other guys.
At the level at which the top players operate, it can be hard to tell, since the improvements usually come in such vanishingly small increments. So much of the Serb’s genius is in his balance, in his ability to maintain a stable foundation for his strokes even at the uttermost stretch. He’s always looked pretty spry to me, yet I’d say he is moving better than ever. His forehand is undoubtedly better. Ironically, it is one of the more underrated shots in the sport, except when it finds the line on match point down in the US Open semifinal, when we apparently cannot hear enough about it. But this moment is worth examination, since it was so widely lauded as an example of Djokovic’s now-impenetrable champion’s mentality. However, I remain convinced that the shot was launched with a mordant gallows-recklessness, which is the place Djokovic used to occupy in such situations. In that moment, he was the old, wry, bitter Djokovic, but his forehand was now just a tiny bit better, and so it found the line where once it would have missed. I cannot say whether any of this is true, but it’s worth considering. Also worth considering is the extent to which confidence stems from technical mastery, and not the other way around.
Today, faced with Almagro, Djokovic didn’t particularly look like last year’s inexorable victory-machine. He just looked a better player than his opponent: faster, steadier, and more technically sound. I know it’s boring to say so, but that’s mostly what tennis matches come down to. The guy who is better at it wins. This brings us back to the question of how good Djokovic actually is. If compelled to guess, I’d say that Djokovic was today operating at considerably more than 60% of his maximum intensity, although how much more I can’t say. He certainly would have beaten Troicki.