Wednesday, 21 September 2016

What's Next for Novak?

by Oliver Clark

Going into this season, Novak Djokovic, the best tennis player in the world of the last half decade, had his eyes on one thing. The previous season had seen him take the Australian Open for a 5th time, a 2nd US Open and a 3rd Wimbledon crown. Yet he had once again missed his opportunity of completing the Grand Slam Quartet, as he came up short to Stan Wawrinka in a 4 set Classic in the final of the French Open. I remember sitting there, watching Djokovic trying to address the crowd only to be muted by a 3 minute standing ovation from those at Roland Garros. I was beginning to ponder, is this something he simply cannot do?

One year later, my pondering was out of the window. After taking the title in Australia like taking the proverbial candy from a baby, he went on to dominate in Paris, eventually beating Andy Murray in the final. He had done it. He could now justify his position among the all time greats of Federer, Laver and Nadal. Less than a month later, he lost in the third round at Wimbledon to Sam Querry. He then proceeded to have an up and down couple of months, winning some small events but losing in the first round of the Olympics to a returning Juan Martin Del Potro. Before the US Open, he was co-favourite for, alongside Murray, who had just come off a Gold Medal victory at the Games.

Things didn't go to plan. At least for those trying to cause an upset and beat Novak. Jiri Vesely had to withdraw through injury before the 2nd round match began, and then Mikhail Youzney retired a mere six games into their match. Jo Wilfried Tsonga lasted 2 sets before succumbing to a knee injury, resulting in Djokovic having played a mere 7 hours of tennis before reaching the final. Compare that to his opponent Wawrinka, who had played a colossal 15 hours, coming through fierce battles against Britain's Dan Evans, Juan Martin Del Potro and Kei Nishikori. It had been a bizarre tournament, with favourites Nadal and Murray losing before the semi finals, and Djokovic seemingly not breaking a sweat for the first 13 days.

The final was set to be a classic. Djokovic took the first set on a tie break before Wawrinka hit back in the second. A close third would eventually swing in Wawrinka's favour. The fourth set will go down as one of the most emotionally enthralling I had ever seen. Djokovic was beginning to show his lack of match fitness. Stan's powerful forehands were flying all over the court, and Novak was beginning to struggle with the physicality of the match. In clear discomfort, he called an injury time out, something he has been criticised for doing too frequently throughout his career. Commentators suggested that he had cramp, but it was clear that this was something worse as Djokovic was beginning to fall apart on the court.

A second time out revealed the true extent of the problems. Blood seeped through his socks as the cameras got full view on the struggle this man was facing. Djokovic is arguably the most in shape player on the tour, and yet he simply could not cope against Wawrinka. His toes were bleeding heavily as he courageously held his serve, and forced Wawrinka to serve for the match, something he duly did. In the post match interviews, he thanked everyone around him for what had been a peculiar two weeks. What I found most striking was Wawrinka's comments, stating that '[He] would not be where [he is] today without Novak'. This was the Swiss Star's 3rd Grand Slam title, and the 2nd where he defeated Novak in the final. The respect between the 2 was evident, and the New York crowd duly rewarded them for the high quality match that had been on display.

Was the season a success? He won the elusive French Open, and reenforced his dominance in Australia, but he only managed to grab 2 of the 5 major titles on offer this year. There will undoubtably be some disappointment, but the fight he showed in the final set of the Paris Final demonstrated to me why I still think he can establish himself as the greatest of all time. He needs 6 more titles to overtake Federer for the record number of Grand Slams. At the age of 29, I can easily see him accomplish this.

But why? After 3 major losses in a row, how will he recover? He is a fighter. He always has been. Novak has always wanted adoration from the fans, yet at times, he is met with criticism simply because he is the best in the world. An interesting piece put together by ITV during the French Open detailed how Novak's upbringing in a war torn Yugoslavia may now be influencing his attitude towards the at times unappreciative fans. Casual viewers see him as an icy, cold hearted machine who dominates through focus and dedication. Although the latter is true, in recent years we have seen a new side to him, one where he plays to the fans and cuts some of the most entertaining interviews that you could imagine. It is well known that he does not like Roger Federer, who was the epitome of a fan favourite and is still adored by all, no matter how well he plays. Although this side of Djokovic, where he is clearly attempting to win over the fans who now rarely see Federer play, is entertaining and a pleasure to watch, the real question is, will this attitude win him the titles he needs to overtake Roger?

Only time will tell. All that I know for now is that Novak Djokovic has been an inspiration for me. His talent. His dedication. His ferocity. His humour. His never say die attitude. His first Grand Slam win at the 2008 Australian Open was the first tennis match I ever watched. Since then I have seem him evolve to be arguably one of the greatest of all time. I can only hope that the rest of the tennis world will one day look on him in the same light.

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