Say goodbye to the affable "boy in the blue shoes." Today the O2 arena in London witnessed the lion-hearted "man in the red shoes" battling in the blue arena in front of his "Red Army."
Novak Djokovic has been a changed man in the fall season, and his recent successes will be attributed as much to his improvement in his physical and tactical changes as the change in his mental demeanor—mostly a result from the confidence he has developed in himself.
Yet he would have much rather liked to play Robin Soderling or Rafael Nadal in his opening match than the ever-consistent Russian in Nikolay Davydenko. Davydenko is the only person against whom he has tasted defeat post-U.S. Open, while he had thumping victories over the other two players in Group B.
Needless to say, he met a supremely confident Davydenko playing a tactically brilliant game and using controlled aggression to unsettle Djokovic.
He was serving brilliantly and using his easy service holds to attack the Serbian on his serves. He consistently attacked Djokovic toward his weaker forehand wing, directing balls to his backhand only to keep Djokovic honest.
Djokovic was struggling on his weaker side and Davydenko was jumping up on any short ball that the Serb offered to strike down for a clean winner, while he was effectively making Djokovic run side to side when on the defensive.
As a result, Davydenko raced through the first after converting both of his break point opportunities and continued the momentum in the second.
Djokovic was clearly unsettled and combined patches of torrid play with flashes of brilliance. In his effort to avert the Davydenko attack, he tried to keep the ball deep, or closer to the lines, and hence uncharacteristically sprayed his forehands long.
But the wounded "man in the red shoes" showed his fighting spirit to break Davydenko in a long 10 minute ninth game, and managed to serve out the 10th game despite feeling uncomfortable on court.
He broke Davydenko early and ran through the initial few games but got tight again at the end. The duo competed another long 12-minute game and Djokovic was unable to close out the match at 5-4, when Davydenko played a wonderfully disguised backhand winner down the line.
At 5-5 with Davydenko serving, the match seemed destined to head for the tie-breaker which would have been disadvantageous for the Serb as the Russian had played very aggressively on his serve.
But he averted the crisis through a series of unforced errors from Davydenko and easily closed out yet another thrilling match between the two.
The quality of today's play may not have matched the one they played in Shanghai, but the competitive fire was visible in both the opponents as neither player seemed willing to wilt at any point in the match. The mutual respect was visible as the players swapped their shirts during the customary handshake after the match.
This may not have been the ideal victory for the world No. 3, but it was of much more consequence as he learned significant lessons on how to win ugly. This would give Djokovic ample confidence in the rest of the tournament knowing that he can win matches even when not playing at his best.
The "man in the red shoes" may be tired, but he is as hungry as anybody to defend his year-end title and end an already spectacular fall season on a higher note like last year.