Seven titles (three of them against the world No.1 Rafael Nadal on clay!), a dream run of 43 matches halted by Roger Federer at this year’s French Open semis – this was clearly not the Novak Djokovic I have to come to watch for some years now.
I have never been much of a fan of Djokovic. I always thought he didn’t have the serve, the strokes, the style, and the stamina to make his game interesting enough for me to sit through the match unless he was pitted against a powerful opponent. But yes, he did well enough to hang around at No.3 for many years and win a grand slam at just 21. Beyond that, I would remember the Serbian for his antics and hilarious imitations on and off the court and his repeated exits due to breathing and other problems especially when he was on the verge of losing.
But now we are talking about a different Serbian – who, many say, has realised the need to put his personal and professional life in order and “being himself”. Had I heard him say this just a couple of months ago, I would have taken it for the usual PR spiel many sportsmen have come to master these days. It is believed that his physical trainer Milan Amanovic and nutritionist Igor Cetojevic, along with, of course, his coach and father-figure Marian Vajda have taken his game to a never-seen-before smash success. Apparently, it was his nutritionist who traced all his ordeals to gluten and helped the Djokovic realise his true mettle. This protein, found commonly in flours, is all set to become as famous as the virus mononucleosis that silently ate up Roger Federer from inside and denied him his 19th grand slam final in 2008 Australian Open.
The Serbian has surged to greater heights. There is such confidence in his eyes that it shines through each time he hits a winner. He swears at himself much less and is far more composed on the court. His first serves are often devastating and ground strokes are a lethal combination of power and accuracy – so much so that Nadal, known for his heavy topspin that curves inside the baseline no matter where he picks up the ball from, sometimes way far back from the baseline – has been left speechless many times in recent months. The result: Djokovic has shown how to beat Nadal because he is no more scared of the long and unnerving rallies that only Nadal could endure so far.
But a resurgent, gluten-free Djokovic faced a moment of crisis at the French Open semis when he lost the first set in a tie-breaker against Federer. Not that Djokovic was playing bad; just that Federer’s superb serving exhibition and backhand winners were leaving him awed and disarmed all at once. This is when Djokovic’s father Srđan suddenly deserted the player’s box and never returned. His mother Dijana too disappeared but somehow managed to come back a little later. When Djokovic looked up at his camp, his face fell. Cruel, indeed!
The duo, along with the rest of the family, makes such a vociferous, chest-beating team that Federer, during an ATP tournaments in April 2008, had looked up at the box and told the camp to just “shut up”.
Djokovic is now on a war path. He is all set to lift many more titles. But first, he must find ways to keep his home turf in order, knock some sense into his camp, and keep doing what he does best.
(Pic source: internet)
(A version of this article first appeared in Unboxed Writers on June 22, 2011)