Is Novak Djokovic Ready for History at the Australian Open?
Little remained to be said after the last victory of Novak Djokovic at Rod Laver Arena because it was so reminiscent of the last such great win he had had there—his five-hour, five-set marathon par excellence against Stanislas Wawrinka. That match, which ended 12-10 in the final set, reminded him later of the five-and-a-half hour epic he had played in the 2012 final against Rafael Nadal.
Only that this time it was not a final but a "mere" fourth-round match.
The tennis was superlative, the limits to which Wawrinka brought Djokovic practically inconceivable. They need no recollection here. What is significant, and cruel, is that Djokovic's moment of glory has only lasted two days and will only last until his next match, against the smooth-hitting Tomas Berdych.
That promises to be another exciting encounter, and while on paper it does imply a contest perhaps even more rugged than what Wawrinka would have offered, it is likely that Djokovic will return to his title defence with renewed vigour and focus.
He returns to it, of course, because there were several signs in his match against Wawrinka of an off-day, a notable lack of precision in his typically exquisite timing. Much of this had to do with the Swiss playing well out of his ballpark, of course, although questions are surely to be raised in the light of a victory so narrowly won.
Djokovic, after all, will attempt at this tournament in 2013 what no one in the history of Open Era tennis has ever accomplished—a three-peat at Melbourne Park.
One of the characteristic qualities of the Asia-Pacific grand slam is its capacity to dish out an unknown force—Tsonga, Gonzalez and Baghdatis in recent years, and one would well place Djokovic himself in that category; his maiden title in 2008 came off the heels of a then totally unprecedented straight-sets win over Roger Federer.
One notes also that Djokovic should in fact be reaching the theoretical peak of his career powers in the next few months. At 26, he is at the same stage, age-wise and maybe career-wise, as Federer was at this very tournament in 2007. We all know the heights of perfection the Swiss attained at that event—winning the tournament without the loss of a set—but also the steady decline that it inevitably precipitated thereafter, with the first such shock coming at Indian Wells when he lost to Canas in straights.
I presume no such easy connection between their careers, although Djokovic's near-miss against Wawrinka, a rarity in the dominant days of Federer, was probably indicative of the very real equality in tennis ability that now exists among top players and the best of the top 20 (Wawrinka being well within the range of the latter).
Such tight wins, of course, also throw some doubt on the three-time champion's mental resources going into the business end of this tournament. His title defence last year was a watershed for Djokovic, being the first time he had managed it in his career; his second such attempt this year may pose new questions. Should he reach the final, it will be interesting to see his psychological response to another new experience in the Serbian's career.
For the moment, Tomas Berdych awaits, and clues as to Djokovic's readiness to tackle the burdens of historic pressure will certainly be in the offering, then.
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