When Novak Djokovic saved two championship points to deny Roger Federer a fairy tale victory, many–including myself–were not surprised. After all, he’d done this before on numerous occasions. But what was astounding to see was the calm and poise Djokovic brought to the all-important final and didn’t flinch once for almost five hours.
It almost looked like he believed he couldn’t lose no matter what, and it’s a frightening thought to entertain for many because clearly, the Serb was not playing at his best. His return game wasn’t firing as efficiently as he would’ve hoped, and his first serve percentage was nowhere near enough by his standards. But where he lacked in his on-court game, he made it up by his unparalleled mental toughness and resilience.
Before the match, much of the talk was regarding how well Federer would serve against one of the best returners of the game, how would the backhand to backhand rallies go and while all of this going on, Djokovic was busy winning an important and decisive battle even before the match began. When asked where he finds the inner strength, he replied, “We spoke about the power of visualization and preparing yourself for possible scenarios. I obviously try to play the match in my mind before I go on the court and I probably couldn’t play this kind of scenario, but I always try to imagine myself as the winner and there’s a power to that.”
Dealing with the crowd
One of the scenarios he surely must have foreseen was the partisan crowd that would be urging Federer on every point, and the way Djokovic countered all of that shows he aced his pre-match preparation. Changing on-court strategies to counter your opponents’ strength or to exploit his or her weakness is very mainstream but to change your mental approach is extremely tough to pull off. Novak Djokovic has mastered the tactic.
Just two days prior, in his semifinal match, Djokovic was engaging the crowd and urging them to cheer on when a lucky net cord gave Bautista Agut the second set. In a span of 48 hours, that Djokovic was gone. Perhaps he understood better than anyone that it’d be futile to engage the crowd. Apart from the occasional stare towards the crowd, Djokovic was extremely subdued in the final. Not once did he let his frustration of not playing his best get the better of him. He never looked out of control. The whole crowd was perhaps eager for an outburst or even a prolonged dialogue with his box, as he’s done before, but there was to be none of that. All they got was a stare and a wry smile at one point of time signaling that the crowd had no sway over him. He was the master of himself.
At the biggest of stages, Novak Djokovic has carved out a niche for himself amongst the behemoth that is the Big Three of men’s tennis. He hasn’t lost to Rafael Nadal at a Major since the 2014 French Open. His last loss to Federer at a Slam came in 2012 at Wimbledon. One can argue they haven’t met a lot at the biggest stages of men’s tennis in recent years; nevertheless, the stranglehold Djokovic enjoys is impressive, to say the least.
He’s pretty vocal about his ambitions to catch Nadal and Federer’s tally of Grand Slams, and it provides us an insight that he wants to be remembered as the best ever. While he may not enjoy the adulation of the masses that his counterparts receive, Djokovic rightfully lets his game speak for itself. The Big Three may have been dominating the game for some time now, but when it comes to mental strength, no one comes close to Novak Djokovic.
Main Photo from Getty