Novak Djokovic may have lost the 2013 U.S. Open to Rafael Nadal, but he doesn’t have to accept it. He knows he had his opportunities to win but let them flutter away in the wind while his scowling rival refused to lose.
Now he must watch the final remnants of his No. 1 ranking flicker into ash and disappear. Such reminders should be familiar.
Back to the Future
Three years ago, Djokovic stood at the U.S. Open trophy ceremony with second-place hardware. Nadal was the king of tennis and was all but unbeatable. Djokovic had to realize that his great talent would only take him to the top of tennis if he become fitter, stronger and unwilling to lose when big points and titles were at stake.
The results were a smash hit. Djokovic dominated the ATP in 2011 as if he was the next great revolution of tennis. He walloped from the baseline and defended as if his very life was at stake. He won four Grand Slam titles in five attempts.
He vanquished Nadal on hard courts, clay and grass, winning seven straight matches and three consecutive Slam finals. He forced the Spaniard to search for answers of his own.
Djokovic has remained a consistent champion but has also taken the short end of too many tough defeats. The French Open semifinal loss was painful; Wimbledon was deflating; the U.S. Open was demoralizing. Changes need to be made to keep evolving his career. Yesterday’s formula is obsolete.
Maybe Djokovic has pushed his body too far. He has been grinding admirably for three years, running with scarcely a rest. Even his glorious title at Monte Carlo last April required him to come back quickly on an injured ankle. He has proved he is a gamer, but he is battling on residual power.
Why not rest until January? Yes, he would throw away 2,600 points from Shanghai, Paris and the WTF, and he would have to verify that he had a legitimate injury. If accomplished, his team could return to the lab to create Djokovic Version 3.0.
Nadal’s seven-month absence from the tour helped him develop more bite on his backhand and greater offensive tenacity. Djokovic and his team could also recharge physically and focus on improving other elements to his game.
He could improve the power and consistency in blasting his forehand from the center of the baseline, like he did in the second set at the U.S. Open final. There would be time and concentration to turn his serve into a set-up weapon. He would be a student of digital replay and be more cerebral, knowing when to attack with his backhand up the line or follow angled groundstrokes to the net. The subtleties could be more automatic with mental planning and purposeful practice.
It would also be a chance to forget about the ranking, points and defense of his kingdom. He could strap on the challenger’s armor and enter 2014 with a chip on his shoulder. He would live as the hunter rather than the hunted, chasing down his Spanish rival with his own improved game. It would be a mental release from the recent past, and it would reinvigorate his hunger.
Clearly, it worked for Nadal.
Return of the King
The upgraded Djokovic needs more than a technical evolution and fresh energy. He must rediscover the unflappable resilience that made him the ultimate survivor champion. He proved this during his great run but has fallen behind Nadal the past few months.
It must sting for him to know that he let the U.S. Open third set slip through his fingers. His grip on the match turned into a broken string.
Was it simply the unforced errors and loss of belief?
Nadal showed Djokovic another lesson by refusing to concede. Somewhere in the middle of the third set, he adjusted to cover his ad court and respond with a timely backhand slice. He pacified his opponent while igniting even greater competitiveness. He crawled out of the dark abyss, seized the match and hammered it home. It was beautiful and brutal, and nobody on Planet Earth was going to stand in his way. A hurricane would have moved aside.
Djokovic is the one other player who has this kind of toughness. When his confidence is soaring, he can escape a firing squad. He has been a great champion, but right now he is wounded.
Now is not the time to let up, but to become greater. No more losing matches to the likes of Andy Murray. He must mirror the intensity of Nadal.
It will take personal commitment and sacrifice to be so determined. No more cheeky interviews, diet books or entertaining skits. It’s go time.
One Thousand Percent
Nothing is guaranteed, and getting to the top of tennis is a lifetime of work. It also has a short shelf life in most instances. In five years, Djokovic will probably no longer have this opportunity. Whatever he can do to bull through Nadal’s ATP tour will have to be done now.
Who will be more dominant in 2014?
Even so, Nadal may not let up until his knees finally do buckle over and they haul him off to plant him in red clay. But that doesn’t mean Djokovic can’t be the one to kick dirt in his face. This is not a time to seek friendship but to dominate. Nothing else should matter.
Alas, Djokovic will likely play through 2013, or at least go through the motions as he gears up for next year, but the biggest question of all will be answered in the next two years: Are his best years behind him, or are they just beginning?
We will be watching.