Julius Erving used to say, "Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don't feel like doing them." The sporting version of that means winning on the days you're not playing particularly well. And the highest form of that scenario is winning against the best on the days you're not playing well.
That's what Novak Djokovic accomplished at this year's Australian Open.
In stretches he dominated the two top players he faced, Andy Murray and Rafa Nadal. But at times he looked vulnerable, either because he labored physically or because he played merely mortal tennis. Yet in both cases, especially in the final against Nadal, he found a way to win and that has to sink Nadal even deeper in wondering what he needs to do to capture his white whale.
Last year Nadal likely said to himself, Novak's playing other-worldly tennis and I should think about adjusting my tactics while I wait for him to come down from the stratospheric level at which he's playing. Given how consistently Nadal plays, that logic seemed sound.
Well today Djokovic looked human. He missed lots of break-point chances. Considering the way he played in the second and third sets, most observers probably thought the match was as good as over.
Fortunately for fans, Nadal stayed steady and Djokovic let him back into the match. When Nadal broke and stood only two points on his serve from going up 5-2, it seemed that Djokovic was done for. But then he pushed through and broke back, and the rest is history.
So he learned a huge lesson today, one that will provide him with an extra level of good karma and one that likely will make him that much more psychologically and therefore physically harder for other players to beat.
He wins—against the best—even when he's not playing that well. At every level of competition the tougher player usually wins.
For the first time in his professional career, Nadal now must confront a new type of adversary. Last year he met a player who could push him around, one who had the skills to put him on the defensive and keep him there and beat him.
But Nadal probably thought that he was still the tougher competitor, and that if and when Djokovic inevitably had an off-day he'd be beatable. And that came to pass today, but Djokovic still found a way to win.
What is Nadal to think now?