The best and worst of Novak Djokovic was a more invisible story in winning his classic 2014 Wimbledon title over the great Roger Federer. While most of the media attention deservedly praised the quality of their match, Djokovic’s grittiness and Federer’s magic, some of the Serbian’s tale was left unexamined.
Federer’s comeback was another acclaimed saga, but how do we interpret the Djokovic narrative? Was the Serbian brilliant or only intermittently so? Do we dwell on his last game in which he broke Federer for the championship, or do we point out that he faltered in closing out the fourth set?
Had he lost, Djokovic would have been stabbed with words and sliced by critical themes more fatally than if daggers and swords had been employed. Certainly his seventh major title stopped the hemorrhaging, but it may have been more important for the battles ahead.
Djokovic might be stronger than ever to strap on his Grand Slam armor and vanquish his legendary opponents. He has wavered but persisted. He has collided with heartbreak but now reacted with aplomb. All of which has tempered his resilience to win more majors.
Djokovic has earned a reputation as a tough-minded tennis champion. Seven majors and 102 weeks at No. 1, all in an age of legendary champions, is proof enough of his tennis talent and mental strength.
Tennis fans can cite specific heroics from matches such as his 2011 U.S. Open semifinal, 2012 Australian Open final, 2013 Australian Open fourth round and 2014 Wimbledon final. In each of these matches, he showed his mettle with a late comeback after it appeared his opponent had the edge in winning the match.
There have also been questions about mental lapses when the crucible is hottest.
In some of his biggest Grand Slam matches, just when it seems his electric play has all but clinched a match, he has shown a tendency to drop his guard, lose his edge and fray at the seams. He’s like an awesome baseball team without a great closer. He opens the door to the drama that follows, right as it seems victory should be his.
Should Djokovic have closed out Nadal in the fourth set of the 2012 Australian Open final, or do we say that Nadal’s greatness forced the decider?
How could Djokovic bombard Murray in the third and fourth sets of the 2012 U.S. Open, only to drift away in the wind?
Was it fate that botched his overhead smash as he staggered down the stretch in his 2013 French Open semifinal loss?
Did Djokovic “choke” late in the fourth set of this last Wimbledon final when he should have closed out Federer? Or was it just more steady and elevated play from his Swiss rival that tore through five straight games?
Aside from his brilliant ball-striking and masterful return skills, Djokovic is acclaimed for fighting back from adversity. But being a closer is his Achilles' heel.
Maybe it's because he doesn’t have a Federer or Pete Sampras serve to ice away his opponent’s resolve. Or maybe it's another technical deficiency against another equally great competitor.
Or is closing out an opponent a special trait woven into the DNA of a champion’s personality?
Fire and Ice
Tennis legends are perhaps a greater study of composure than most other athletes. There are no teammates, coaches or a clock to help cushion a collapse. (Sidenote: Other, and occasionally controversial ways, to reverse momentum may or may not include medical timeouts, towels, extended time between serves and a long walk into the locker room for a bathroom break.)
Does a player's emotions help or hurt his play? We hear sports analysts discuss a champion’s psyche and temperament: Does a champion need a stoic disposition? Should he react with fiery shouts? Is there ice water in the veins? Does hot intensity drive him? Is he a cold, ruthless assassin? Does he have iron nerves?
Often we place champions on one temperature extreme or the other:
Ice: Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, Sampras, Andre Agassi, Gustavo Kuerten and Federer
Fire: Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Thomas Muster, Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin, Murray and Djokovic.
Then there is Rafael Nadal who is a curious blend of boiling coolness and occasional explosion. We almost need to give him his own category: icy hot.
Although a player’s tennis talent is the vehicle for success, his ability to navigate through adversity is often the difference in crucial situations. The ice player can patiently play around his problems, finding solutions and greater focus. The hot player is more apt to play through his difficulties, seeking momentum and greater confidence.
Djokovic has mostly figured out how to play to his personality, raising his arms to the crowd and looking for more external sources, rather than internal peace, to fuel his highs and lows. He lets his mistakes bother him at times, and his occasional streaky play can weigh on him at the most crucial times.
He is persistent, but his resilience is often what makes or breaks triumph or agony.
So far, Djokovic is 7-7 in major finals, which is an awesome achievement all considered. Our expectations for him to play a nearly perfect standard against opponents who are equally great must also be realistic. He is human, and it's easy to point out what went wrong, but it's more astonishing to observe how excellent he is match after match.
Need for More Resilience
Tennis resilience means riding through the stress and emotional storms that accompany poor play. A player must restore his game to his best prior condition. This requires a special blend of patience and determination, while eschewing panic and frustration.
How does Djokovic respond to crisis? Although his resilience seems modeled on the Nadal school of problem solving, the difference is that Nadal is able to move on to the next point, forget and refocus. Nadal has spent his tennis lifetime honing and developing this quality.
Djokovic is a more recent convert to resilience, and he is still at times divided on exactly how to respond. Should he play safer or hit harder? Does he smile and shake his head or pretend that nothing happened? He usually responds well, but when the match is on the line, it can prove costly. He has belief, but he requires even more trust to follow his most successful mechanics.
The fourth set in the 2014 Wimbledon final nearly cost him the match. On the other hand, it’s a tribute to his resilience that he found the composure to fight back one point at a time. There was no great streak in the fifth set, but there was a brick-by-brick effort that put him in position to break Federer and win the match.
And maybe it was better that he, a return extraordinaire, finished the match this way, in his comfort zone, rather than if he were serving second in the set and had to follow up his final break with a hold.
In the end, Djokovic showed massive courage to beat back his mental demons and win a major final. He took the best shots from Marin Cilic, Grigor Dimitrov and Federer and climbed back up to the top. Newsday’s Art Spander reported Djokovic’s self-awareness:
(This Wimbledon) has a special importance to me mentally. I managed to not just win against my opponent but win against myself as well and find that inner strength that got me the trophy today.
Djokovic released much of the pressure that had accumulated from his recent Grand Slam history, and he added more resilience to his persona for his next big war. He has the tools and talent to win titles on all surfaces, and he is the most likely player to rip off a mini-string of more major championships.
But his key will be those long, heavyweight bouts and those all-important moments when he must shrug off adversity and close out his opponent, especially if it is the Spanish warrior, Nadal. Inevitably, he will need to combine his dominance with even greater resilience.
If so, he will be unbeatable.