Advantage Djokovic

Novak Djokovic, the 23-year-old Serbian tennis player, is the most recent athlete to be examined for signs of the extraordinary. How did it start? What's different? Why now? — these are the questions that have driven the enquiry into Djokovic's incredible start to 2011, a start that has shown surprisingly few signs of ending. By S. Ram Mahesh.

A winning streak is a tenuous thing, as persistently in peril as a house of cards fussily assembled. Victory is tricky — even for the best of the best. Putting together a succession of wins demands a rare constellation of events, and so when a streak begins to form, the mechanics of winning come under intense scrutiny.

Novak Djokovic, the 23-year-old Serbian tennis player, is the most recent athlete to be examined for signs of the extraordinary. How did it start? What's different? Why now? — these are the questions that have driven the enquiry into Djokovic's incredible start to 2011, a start that has shown surprisingly few signs of ending.

The enquiry has enriched world tennis. It has engaged the serious fan, for Djokovic hasn't been discussed as deeply as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and there's nothing as absorbing as a new muse; it has simultaneously involved the more casual fan with its setting up of a three-way dynamic at the top of men's tennis.

The interests of the two sets of fans intersect neatly at the French Open, which will begin in Paris on May 22, Djokovic's 24th birthday. In the course of his 37-match streak (the best start to a year since John McEnroe's 42-0 in 1984), Djokovic has accomplished what must be considered the toughest individual task in tennis. He has mastered Nadal on clay, not once but twice, both times in finals. It's these wins — at Madrid and Rome — that have legitimised the streak and made more interesting Roland Garros, a Nadal stomping ground. The victories, achieved in straight sets, are worthy studies, for they encapsulate the Serb's transformation.

But to get a sense of the transformation we need first to see him as he was. Djokovic has always been difficult to understand; neither his personality nor his game lends itself to easy categorisation. With Federer and Nadal attracting the amount of notice they do by virtue of being the best of their era (and among the greatest of all time) and Andy Murray coming a close second in terms of media attention by virtue of being British (and a fine player), Djokovic often slipped under the radar.

From all accounts, he was a serious, driven kid who wasn't embarrassed to let people know he wanted to be No. 1. Jelena Gencic, a Serbian tennis-camp instructor known best for spotting Monica Seles, was reportedly taken aback by the intensity and clear-headedness of a four-year-old Novak when she saw him. Yet he first became popular as a variety act, his impressions of fellow tennis players and his theatrical karaoke singing delighting an audience that had grown accustomed to the sober professional.

Djokovic's style of play, on first viewing, didn't distinguish itself in the manner Federer's, Nadal's, or even Murray's did. The stroke-production was clean-cut, efficient, particularly off the backhand wing. He could change direction with the two-hander and hit it down the line flat — a stroke Andre Agassi calls the “money shot” because it wins so many points. But in a universe of talented ball-strikers from the baseline, Djokovic didn't call attention to himself.

What wasn't immediately apparent was the quality of his movement, of his recovery step after a stroke so he could regain balance and prepare himself for the next. If there's a feature that differentiates those that make it to the business end of a tournament from those that don't, it's movement. Also, people closest to Djokovic thought he had the temperament of a champion — a quality as elusive to define as it is to develop. All he needed was to somehow find consistency over two weeks and a Grand Slam title would be his. With Federer and Nadal dividing tennis' territory between themselves these forecasts seemed a bit rich.

A 20-year-old Djokovic did break through, however, defeating an ailing Federer in the semifinals en route to winning the Australian Open in 2008. But he didn't make another Grand Slam final till the U.S. Open last year, struggling in the intervening near-three-year period with his fitness, a change of racquet, and a dropping off of his level of play. He still got to at least the quarterfinal stage in eight of the 10 majors he played during this time, but dips in performance are judged in context; he appeared to stagnate while both Federer and Nadal enjoyed resurgences.

The turnaround, and Djokovic appeared to predict it then, came after the defeat to Nadal at Flushing Meadows late last year. He said that the “aggressive game that has been part of me always” had been regained and that he would wake up “a new man”. He's been true to his word. After winning both his singles matches in the Davis Cup final against France late last year, helping Serbia to its first title, Djokovic has had one-third of an annus mirabilis.

So what, if anything, has changed? As is often the case in such matters, it's many things working together, each feeding off the other. Djokovic has benefited from two fundamental aspects of his game, technique and fitness, coming together — reward at last for years of toil.

Like Nadal, he has worked constantly on his skill, endeavouring to make incremental gains — as his coach Marian Vajda told Paul Fein in last week's Sportstar, Djokovic's forehand, which had a tendency of breaking down, is now a more solid, better balanced stroke, while his serve has gained from an improvement in the position of his arm in the backswing. Added to this is better physical conditioning, brought about, in part, by a gluten-free diet.

This combined advancement has had a number of spin-off effects, all of which were evident in Madrid and Rome. Nadal's opponents, especially on clay, are affected by the pressure to do too much and to do it immediately. Points must be shortened, boundaries pushed. Djokovic seemed immune to this. He knew he could hang with Nadal in the long rally — not only could he cover court as well, he could hit with a similar intensity in the later stages of a rally. Djokovic's piercing two-handed backhand — penetrative because it's flat and pared of topspin — allowed him to control the point. He also knew that with him having developed a sounder forehand, Nadal hadn't a go-to flank to draw errors.

As a result, Djokovic was patient — he looked to close the point only after playing himself into the position to do so. He looked a master of the transition between defence and offence, which is such a vital characteristic of the modern game, and one that Federer and Nadal are so good at. This wasn't quite tennis from another planet, as one over-excited commentator screeched when Djokovic knocked a volley into the open court after suckering an opponent in with a drop-shot, but it was firm, intelligent, purposeful tennis.

Vitally, the streak, with its internal momentum, has bred belief, further enhancing Djokovic's play. It's this confidence that has kept him from breaking in tight situations — against Murray in the semfinal in Rome, for instance — when he might have in the past. It's this confidence that allowed him to recover after the draining Murray encounter and face Nadal on a clay-court that was more to the Spaniard's liking than Madrid, which was harder and faster. It's the sort of confidence that worries a locker-room, even a man as secure in his abilities as Nadal — quite the advantage to take into the French Open.