Putting mind over matter

Since leading Serbia to the 2010 Davis Cup and racking up a 70-6 record in 2011, Novak Djokovic has held the psyche of all his opponents in an unrelenting grip. His adherence to an unforgiving regimen and a superhuman level of fitness have allowed him to back his mental advantage with physical improbability in shotmaking. Over to Kunal Diwan.

What goes around comes around, sometimes with penal interest. After spending a few years messing around in the privileged space that is the calvarium of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal has let out his own cranial cavity to a squatter who refuses to vacate it. Novak Djokovic is now like a scab that flares up in Nadal's head each time the two meet on a court and the Serb's win in Melbourne — in what was the longest Grand Slam final in history — is likely to have exacerbated the mental ulcers that fester and bleed whenever the sculpted southpaw runs into the prankster.

The latest triumph, realised by way of a gruelling five-setter against an even-more-than-usually motivated Nadal, was Djokovic's seventh consecutive win over the Spaniard in a final in the past 12 months.

Since leading Serbia to the 2010 Davis Cup and racking up a 70-6 record in 2011, Djokovic has held the psyche of all his opponents in an unrelenting grip. His adherence to an unforgiving regimen and a superhuman level of fitness have allowed him to back his mental advantage with physical improbability in shotmaking. A case in point: the screaming final-set forehand winner from beyond the tramlines against Nadal on break-point that was almost as stunning as the one he pulled out of nowhere against Federer, at match-point, in the 2011 USO semis.

On at least a few occasions in Melbourne, Djokovic was given up for dead. Each time he came back stronger; proof, if any were required, that the Serb has painted his own psychological sores with the ointment of self-belief, in such copious quantities that never again, it appears, can those cankers of doubt and uncertainty be gouged open — not by the brutality of Nadal, not by the enigma of Federer, not by the irreverent derring do of an upstart.

“I was in that position a couple years ago, losing most of the semi-finals and finals against him (Nadal) and Roger ... so I know how it feels,” Djokovic responded to the stark turnaround in the fortunes of the top three.

Against Murray, he dropped a close third set and, clasping his chest like a wheezing asthmatic, buckled down to the ground. His response in the fourth set was unbelievable: a 6-1 spanking of the Scot, who hadn't a clue what source of energy, what reserves of fortitude his opponent was drawing on. In the final, Nadal slipped a break ahead in the decider. And again Djokovic — gutted like a recruit after a punishment hike — came back fearlessly with a break of his own.

It has taken precisely a year for a player who, it was callously assumed, would go down in the annals as a One Slam Wonder to swell his majors tally to five — two more than the collection of Grand Slams aggregated by Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt, stars of what now appears to be a bygone era. With only the French Open missing from an already impressive resume, Djokovic has already started to look ahead.

“I'm prioritising Grand Slams this year... and (the) Olympic Games. I want to do well and I want to get (to my) first final, at least, in Paris. I have never been in a final there, and I have a feeling that I'm ready this year to achieve that.”

With such an emphatic and public declaration of purpose, the onus is on the rest to arrest or navigate this riptide of rich form. The principal contender to cease Djokovic's flow is obviously Nadal, the erstwhile iron-willed beast who seems to have the measure of everybody except the Serb. The seven finals he has lost to the World No.1 in the year past include two on clay, by far the Spaniard's favourite surface and one that Djokovic has sworn to master this coming season.

Nadal is among the elite who have won each of the four Grand Slam titles at least once. At 10 majors his career haul is six short of Federer's 16 and suffers from a glaring clay slant — six on the red dirt of Paris and four elsewhere. Although Nadal would be looking gratefully toward the clay swing for a restoration of the old order, another year gives him another chance to straighten out the sludgy skew of his titles.

Federer, at 30, has shown he still resides in the 99.99 percentile of the tennis-playing fraternity. The Swiss is better by miles than most, as a resurgent second half of 2011 indicated, and was responsible for stopping Djokovic's winning streak last year in the semifinals at Roland Garros. The maestro has always looked untouchable up to the semis at the majors, but to gain his 17th Grand Slam crown he will have to best Djokovic or Nadal, an increasingly difficult proposition as the telomeres continue to wear out at their ends.

Against Nadal in the 2012 Australian Open semifinal, Federer hurtled on like a runaway train, before his nemesis resumed pounding the suspect single-handed backhand. No amount of running around to the forehand side could save Federer from a play that Nadal has used time and again to harass the older man. Advancing age is a bummer no doubt, but Federer did teach the younger Juan Martin del Potro a lesson in hardcourt tennis in the quarterfinal. It didn't help anybody's cause, except Federer's, that the 2009 USO champion played like a narcoleptic on downers, but Delpo's day, many hope, will come again, soon.

British hacks, for once, spared Andy Murray an inky butchering after his gruelling five-set loss to Djokovic at Melbourne Park this year. The Scot had the World No.1 on the run, was a set up, came back from being a break down in the decider, angled winners past the best returner in contemporary tennis with the regularity of a metronome — Murray did everything, perfectly, except winning. Matches this close are often decided on a mental thing — an area in which Djokovic seems to have gained considerably of late — and there was no disgrace in the Scot's performance, which was a huge improvement on the 2011 final at the same venue against the same opponent for which the real Andy Murray had refused to turn up.

Murray, like Federer, has been a regular in the last four at the majors, but has lost all the three Grand Slam finals he has featured in. Now coached by Ivan Lendl — the dour Czech who surrendered his first four Grand Slam title matches, eventually ending with eight trophies — the Hibs-daft's primary goal will be to go one better on his current showing; that one last step that separates the supporting cast from the star. If it is cerebral tightening that is required, who better to consult than the man who brought thought and preparation into a sport that until then was steeped in spontaneity. Whatever the case, the monkey of winning a first Grand Slam hangs heavily on Murray's back. Another unrequited year will only see it clawing into his neck.

As the calendar meanders into the territory of the dirt-ballers, and thence to the hallowed turf of the All England Club, agendas have been identified and plans chalked out. The Djoker wants a French Open, Nadal wants back his invincibility, Federer a fortuitous 17th, and Murray a floodgate-opening first. One question remains: Who will do to Djokovic what he is doing to Nadal and what Nadal did to Federer? Will it be a young Turk possessed of a howitzer serve, groundstrokes from another dimension and a mental make-up untrained to detect and submit to adversity and reputation? Will it be a revitalised Delpo? The promising Raonic? Tomas Berdych? Bernard Tomic? Some tongue-twisting name-bearer from the Balkans? Someone who we haven't yet heard of and who's waiting to erupt onto our consciousness?

Anybody who has watched the top 100 players in action can safely infer that the segmented nature of the rankings — the hierarchies and sects contained within — is but a consequence of several related factors. Base ability, perseverance, luck, emotional rewiring, work ethic all count for something. It all lies within, waiting to be tapped, to be summoned to the surface. Who'd have thought Djokovic could dig deep and effect such a drastic improvement in his approach to the game in so short a time as a year? Who'd think now it's impossible for someone else to do it all over again?