Novak Djokovic: The Pinnacle Awaits
Battle-hardened veteran, Fernando Gonzalez, once said that he had never played anyone like his Serbian opponent, after teenage Novak Djokovic came through their grueling five set encounter in the second round of the French Open in 2006.
I recently wrote a piece on the Serb's friend and rival, Andy Murray. Both players moved up the junior ranks together and have similar counter-punching baseline styles—Djokovic being the more offensively minded of the two. They are only one week apart in age and have much respect and admiration for each other's accomplishments.
The current second ranked player in the world has been laying in the shadows of the two dominant players over the last five years, biding his time and honing his skills as he himself attempts to become the presiding force on the tour.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have ruled over the tennis world for half a decade, and held the longest-running "one/two" positions in history. But Djokovic has been there through most of that time, constantly nipping at the heels of the two greats.
The time to assert himself as a future No. 1 is near.
As the first of the major U.S. Open series events fast approaches, the Masters 1000 in Toronto, the hard court mastery of Djokovic should hold him in good stead.
Djokovic has won five such titles on this surface, as well as the prestigious end-of-year World Tour Championships and the Australian Open, both in 2008.
The Serb's offensive baseline game can be overwhelming on his beloved cement. In fact, when Djokovic is on his game, he is, in my opinion, the most effective hard court player in the world today.
And, after his re-ascension to the No. 2 position in the rankings, there is no reason why he should not have the confidence to let his tremendous skills take flight.
Another aspect of his game that will help him navigate the treacherous waters of this fact-paced season is his tenacity. When Djokovic is really up for the match and the fight, he is a nightmare for all opposition, as Gonzalez would attest.
Recently, breathing problems and allergies have sometimes prevented him from realizing his full potential on court, but deep runs at the French Open and Wimbledon have meant that the Serb is back.
Djokovic's breakthrough year was in 2007, when he first finished second to Nadal at the Masters event in Indian Wells, and then won the important tournament in Miami, sometimes described as the "fifth Slam." He beat Nadal along the way at that Masters and the world began to take note of his prowess, especially on the hard courts.
The culmination of that year was his defeat of the world's top three players, again on his favorite surface at the Montreal Masters. It was the first time this feat was accomplished since 1994, when Boris Becker also beat the three best players of the time on his way to victory.
Djokovic defeated Andy Roddick, Nadal and Federer in the final three rounds to claim his second big prize of the season.
In 2008, he earned the coveted Bronze Medal in singles at the Olympics in Beijing, losing a very close match to Nadal in the semifinals. A missed routine smash on the last point handed the match over to his friendly rival.
Djokovic's main strength is his double-handed backhand down the line, which he can suddenly unleash with pinpoint accuracy. His forehand comes next. It is considered one of the big shots in the game, and can be hit heavily for consistent baseline rallies, or flattened out to find the back line.
His dogged persistence is another asset, and his serve can be a huge weapon when he finds rhythm on it. At Wimbledon, that latter aspect of his game was effective in some of the early rounds, and it appeared he was rediscovering his form on it.
But the serve let him down in the semifinals against Tomas Berdych, when double-faults on critical points sealed his fate. His post-Wimbledon work must have centered on the improvement of that shot, and once he steps out on his preferred surface his serve will be firing again.
Nole, as his many fans know him, will survive the onslaught of the emerging talent, and fight his way to the summit.
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