In 2007 the time was right for Novak Djokovic: Roger Federer was still No. 1, but becoming ever so slightly less dominant. Rafael Nadal was still unparalleled on clay but struggling to win regularly on asphalt. The rest of the tour, including very good players like Andy Roddick and Nikolay Davydenko, were essentially competing for No. 3.
Along came a confident young Serb who counterpunched effectively but also had the explosive power to trouble his more experienced opponents. He frankly stated that his goal was to be No. 1 in the world and to win majors. Furthermore, his game adapted well to all surfaces.
By the spring of 2008, Federer was showing more signs of vulnerability and Nadal was still a Grand Slam champion on only one surface. Djokovic, however, was backing up his goals with results: beating Federer en route to an Australian Open title, and beating Nadal in Indian Wells.
He was No. 3, but playing like No. 1.
One year later, he’s still number No. 3, but will almost certainly fall to No. 4 shortly. His results have been steady, with him winning the Masters Cup in November and Dubai in February. He still regularly reaches the quarterfinals or better of the events he’s playing.
A big problem for him is the tour itself, which isn’t looking quite so ripe anymore. Small but qualified changes in Nadal’s game have made him an all-surface threat, and his results in the past year have been staggering. Federer is struggling just as much as he was last spring, but his 2008 U.S. Open victory (beating Djokovic along the way) should end any doubt that he can still turn it on when he needs to.
And then there’s Andy Murray, who is set to take the No. 3 ranking soon. Though actually one week older than the Serb, Murray’s ascent in the last year has probably made Djokovic feel a lot less youthful; now there are two almost-22-year-olds at the door, but only one seems to be knocking.
In the long term, Murray is probably a greater obstacle to the Serb than the Swiss or the Spaniard; Djokovic’s game is still better tailored to hard courts than Nadal’s, and he’s still nearly six years younger than Federer.
Murray, though, is the same age as Djokovic, thrives on the same hard courts the Serb does, and has a game plan that matches up very well with Djoker’s.
Djokovic has more explosive power on the forehand wing, their backhands are both extremely sturdy, and Djokovic is probably faster.
Murray’s peerless anticipation probably cancels out Djokovic’s speed, however, and he serves, volleys and returns better than the Serb. What’s more, what may be Murray’s greatest advantage is something hard to measure; his mind, which constantly explores new angles and new tactics for keeping opponents off-balance.
Through last spring, the eager, impetuous Djokovic won the first four matches with Murray, who was still working to put his cerebral game together. He finally did last year – perhaps in his five-set win over Richard Gasquet at Wimbledon—and since then he’s been three-for-three against the Serb.
Many people have offered advice for Djokovic: He should simplify his strokes, he should return to his old racket, he should get fitter and just plain grow up. Each of these tidbits has merit, but I won’t repeat them.
Djokovic appears to be suffering from confusion and a loss of confidence at the moment, but he’s still young, extremely talented and very ambitious. I’m confident that it’s only a matter of when, not if, he solves those problems.
What he and Marián Vajda must do, however, is study Murray’s game: View footage of his losses to the Scot and dissect them. Probe for ways of taking the Scot out of his comfort zone.
Djokovic has multiple problems now, but Murray looks like the greatest of them. Better to start countering it now than later.