When considering the All-Time Greats of any sport, several aspects of their play are taken into account. There's the physical component, which brings up the idea of the player's athleticism and tangible skill in the game. Then there's the achievements and accomplishments aspect, which questions whether or not his/her career has been successful enough to be described as historic. And finally, there's the mental component.
What is it about an athlete's mental strength that is so crucial to his/her play? It is a combination of things that involve the ability to maintain momentum, bounce back from tough slumps and make smart decisions on the fly.
Tennis is widely considered one of the most mental sports in the world. For hours at a time, singles tennis players are isolated on their own side of the net, staring down the opponent and being forced to find a way to win without help from anybody. It makes sense that it requires a high amount of mental strength to win.
So what does it take for a player to achieve a solid mental state, thus establishing himself/herself as a fierce and successful competitor? Novak Djokovic would certainly like to know.
In some cases, we see players who simply do not have the mental strength required to take on the challenges of the tennis world. That isn't the case at all with the Serb, who has been World No. 1 for almost a year now. In fact, on various occasions, he has proven that he can keep his mind under control every bit as well as the cherished legends of the present and past.
Take the 2011 U.S. Open semifinal as an example. After coming back from two sets down to even the match, Djokovic finds himself facing Roger Federer's double match point, as he was down 3-5 in the fifth. With his back up against the wall, the Djoker pulls off a return that has to be one of the best in the game's history—a perfect cross-court winner that carries him to four straight games and a spot in the final.
Play like this makes it near impossible to say that Djokovic has no mental game; this kind of clutch shot can only come from those who can keep their cool under the craziest kinds of pressure.
We certainly don't always see this from him, though. In fact, we sometimes see things from the complete opposite end of the spectrum, as we did at the end of this year's French Open final.
Soon after the Serb went on an incredible eight-game win streak to take the third set from Rafa Nadal and go up in the fourth, the match was postponed due to rain. When it continued the next day, Djokovic lost his lead, and as he served to set up a tie break, he double-faulted the match away.
This wasn't the first time that this happened in 2012; in the Rome final, against the same opponent, two consecutive faults also sealed the fate of the tournament.
How can a player be so good in certain high-stakes situation, yet so poor in others? Sure, the pressure is much greater when serving as opposed to returning. But ultimately, the situation is the same; when down match point, some kind of strong production is necessary.
A big part of the problem revolves around the opponent. When playing Federer in the U.S. Open example above, Djokovic was facing a player whom he had already taken down in straight sets on the hard surface (at the Australian Open) just several months before. Confidence wasn't really an issue in this match.
The Rome and French Open finals of this season were not quite the same. Djokovic had already fallen at the hands of Nadal in Monte Carlo a little bit earlier in the clay season, and he wasn't necessarily prepared to take on the same menacing opponent again (twice). When it came down to the pressure situations of match point, he simply choked.
Are these misfortunes understandable? Completely. Any player could very well do the same thing when staring down Nadal, who many regard as the greatest clay-courter of all time, on the clay surface. However, at this point in his career, Djokovic doesn't want to be considered just any player; he wants to be seen as one of those Greats, and based on his recent achievements, he is on the right track.
The problem is the fact that his mental game is so lacking in consistency. Once he reaches the point where he fears nobody on the ATP tour, no matter the surface or event, he will have much less trouble in those situations that set apart the Greats from the rest. Until then, though, it will be hard for Djokovic to establish himself among the likes of Laver, Sampras and Federer.