Novak Djokovic has been sailing through a barrage of challenges at the Tokyo Olympics as if it were an easy put away at the net. But even the GOAT struggles with his overhead sometimes, so here’s a look at the biggest hurdles Djokovic has on his way to his quest for an Olympic Gold Medal, in order of least to most concern.
Heat and Humidity
Djokovic sounded some alarms early in the Games when blistering heat and humidity weighed down daytime tennis. It did not hamper the 20-time Grand Slam champion, who is used to difficult conditions and is supremely physically fit. For his conditioning alone, the heat does not rank high as an obstacle for Djokovic. Furthermore, weather patterns are transient. If it’s hot this week, there’s a chance for more moderate temperatures later. In fact, a long range forecast for Tokyo calls for rain and a slight cooling, though still hot. On a 1 to 10 scale of concern for Novak Djokovic, heat and humidity ranks only a 3.
Djokovic faces several different kinds of pressure while in Tokyo. First, he’s playing for his beloved Serbia. Any athlete on the Olympic stage is bound to feel it a sense of national duty, and U.S. gymnastics superstar Simone Biles has admitted as much. Djokovic also must contend with the pressure of his own goals–aiming for the “Golden Slam” of winning all four Majors, plus an Olympic Gold Medal, something only Steffi Graf has been able to accomplish. However, unlike most people, Djokovic seems to enjoy and relish pressure. He has said recently that his self-belief enables him to push through intense moments during competition. On a 1 to 10 scale of concern, pressure is only a 4 at best for Djokovic.
Even with a spate of several high-profile withdrawals from the Tokyo Olympics, including Rafael Nadal, the men’s draw boasts ten of the Top 20 players on the ATP Tour. Outside the top seeds, dangerous threats still lurk–including Aslan Karatsev, who beat Djokovic earlier this year, and Nikoloz Basilashvili, who has won two ATP tournaments so far in 2021. Still, the Djokovic reign of dominance this season has yet to meet its match. The Serbian superstar rode an 18-match winning streak coming into the Games. With 14 aces in his second round match, he’s serving better than he has in years. This field of players is no more challenging than the draw for a Grand Slam, perhaps even less so. Therefore, it ranks only a 5 as an area of concern.
Certainly the confidence of Djokovic in his fitness level and in his mental stamina gives him an advantage in the extended best-of-five formats of Grand Slam matches. It could be argued that an abbreviated best-of-three Olympic format undercuts the Djokovic arsenal of strength. In fact, at Roland Garros this year, Djokovic dropped his two opening sets twice before winning the final three to advance. However, it’s likely that knowing he had more sets to play with, Djokovic was able to calibrate his dials of intensity in those matches. Over the course of his career, Djokovic has amassed five ATP Tour Finals wins, as well as multiple Masters 1000 championships in the best-of-three format. It’s really only a matter of pacing. Because of the randomness that a best-of-three format can sometimes produce, format ranks as a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of concern for Djokovic.
The devil is in the details. Of all the complications that Djokovic might face in these Olympics, the smallest technicalities pose the largest threat. Like all tennis players, Djokovic relies on his routines, his equipment, and his preparation to be “just so.” Because of the pandemic and Olympic regulations, Djokovic had to limit the size of his trusty entourage, including his agent, coaches, physiotherapist and mentors. In addition, he doesn’t have his usual stringer to adjust his racquets to his exact specifications. Djokovic, a gluten-free and plant-based enthusiast, has likely not had his usual measure of control over his nutrition.
Add all these things up, and they can easily become a source of frustration in stressful moment during a match. Any human being on the planet would have to feel out of sorts at times during a pandemic Olympics. That said, ever since his default from the 2020 US Open, Djokovic has displayed uncanny mental strength, resilience, and flexibility in the face of challenges both large and small. Of the “Big 3,” at the moment he seems best equipped to handle whatever is thrown at him. These details are the greatest area of concern for Djokovic, but this still only rank a 7. A chilled out, positive Novak Djokovic is positioned superbly on his quest for Gold.
Main Photo from Getty.