Can this be the Novak Djokovic we have been watching on this extraordinary winning streak since last December? Can it be the former world No. 3 Serb whose winning record now stands at 53-1?
Is it “Nole” who marches confidently onto court and stays there until the glorious end?
Not only that, but Djokovic just won his fifth consecutive ATP Masters Shield in Montreal after also picking up masters titles in Indian Wells, Miami, Rome and Madrid in 2011. No player has ever won five ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournaments in a row or even in one season.
What is more, Djokovic also won this first tournament back after being declared world No. 1. No player before him has done that either. Is there any stopping this man? Djokovic's extraordinary rise to the No. 1 ranking has been “the” tennis story of 2011.
As it unfolds, we all continue to watch in amazement.
Eventually, of course, it will end. The question is, will it be this week in Cincinnati at the hands of new American rising star Ryan Harrison or old rising star Radek Stepanek? Maybe it will be Djokovic’s old nemesis Roger Federer? After all, Federer is the only man to have defeated Djokovic in 2011. Time will tell.
But as the streak continues, you keep waiting for it to happen. As new world No. 1 Djokovic gets himself into tight situations on court, you keep expecting him fold up his tent and go home. After all, it was his modus operandi when the Serb first turned pro.
At age 18, during his first French Open in 2005, Djokovic retired 6-4, 2-6, 2-3 as he faced Guillermo Coria in the second round. While it was not exactly an auspicious beginning for an 18-year-old, it was understandable and forgivable.
The next year, however, again at Roland Garros, the Serb retired during a quarterfinal match with then world No. 2 Rafael Nadal trailing 4-6, 4-6. Retirement seemed to be a pattern reserved for Paris in the springtime.
Then at Wimbledon in 2007, Djokovic once again threw in the towel as he faced Nadal in the semifinals at the All England Club at 6-3, 1-6, 1-4. The Serb was developing a reputation for being a quitter, deserved or not.
In 2008, although Djokovic did not resign in a major match, the Serb did give up the fight against Roger Federer at Monte Carlo during their semifinal contest with the score standing 3-6, 2-3. Federer was not pleased at the outcome, especially with Djokovic’s parents. Maybe it was shame that drove the Serb to scramble out of town after retiring.
During the 2008 US Open, Djokovic was especially critical of Andy Roddick who “made fun” of all of the Serb’s supposed ailments, coming into their quarterfinal match at Arthur Ashe Stadium. The Serb’s remarks about the American after their match did not sit well with the New York crowd. They actually booed him.
Ironically, the Serb found himself facing Roddick in the quarterfinals of the 2009 Australian Open. Djokovic was the defending champion. The Serb was forced to retire in the fourth set 7-6, 4-6, 2-6, 1-2 from the extreme heat and his own exhaustion.
Were people surprised by the Serb’s decision to call it quits? Djokovic’s reputation took a beating after this particular retirement because everyone expected more from the defending champion.
After all, fans will forgive almost any behavior on- and off-court––except quitting. They love the “never say die” mentality of certain players like today’s David Ferrer and yesterday’s Aussie Lleyton Hewitt. These guys never quit on court. The level of their intensity thrills tennis aficionados.
You see, tennis is an individual sport. There is no place to hide on the court. An offensive blocker in football can miss a couple of tackles because he is loafing or a guard on the basketball court can get caught flat-footed as an opposing player flies by. Then, the coach can sit these guys down on the bench and plug in someone else who is ready and eager to play.
That is not possible in tennis. You are out there for as long as it takes to win or lose. Those are the only two acceptable outcomes of a match. When an opponent completely takes the fight out of you, your mind tends to shut down and you can no longer conceive of a way win. It becomes impossible to counter the serve, return, forehand or backhand of that guy on the other side of the net. So, sometimes you just quit mentally and physically.
For Djokovic, that meant retirement. For other players, it meant just not trying any more—tanking. To retire in four slam tournaments between 2005 and 2009 was very unacceptable for the young Serb. It has taken certain fans a long time to come around and give him a second chance.
To be perfectly fair about the Serb’s early years, Djokovic had medical and certainly maturity issues. He seemed to be more interested in being popular, being funny or being accepted than he was about tennis. He professed his desire to be world No. 1 but did not seem hungry enough to train for it.
There was no one on tour, however, with more talent than Djokovic.
Finally, during the 2011 offseason, Djokovic committed himself to perfecting his game by getting in great shape, working diligently on his fitness while fine-tuning his once aberrant serve. After teaming with Ana Ivanovic in the Hopman Cup, Djokovic entered the Australian Open just barely in the conversation as media attention remained riveted on Rafa reaching and winning his fourth consecutive grand slam final––the Rafa Slam.
Or, the press turned to Roger Federer and his chance of reclaiming the championship and winning his fifth Aussie Open title.
Djokovic marched through his matches after stumbling a bit getting out of the blocks in Melbourne. The Serb defeated Marcel Granollers in the opener but was extended to four sets against Croat Ivan Dodig.
After that point, Djokovic did not surrender a set at the 2011 Australian Open. He took out Viktor Troicki, Nicholas Almagro, and Tomas Berdych.
The telling moment came when Djokovic defeated Roger Federer in the semifinals. Finally he defeated his friend and oftentimes practice partner Andy Murray 6-4, 6-2, 6-3, in the finals. Djokovic won the 2011 Australian Open to claim his second title Down Under and his second grand slam title.
The fun-loving, carefree guy didn’t handle his instant fame well back in 2007. He took his personal life with him onto the court. When potential continues to override commitment, hard work is set aside. You can never rise to the top on talent alone. Now Djokovic seems at long last to have figured out his priorities.
Djokovic has natural talent to burn. He moves better and serves better than most at the top of the game. The forehand has become deadly and Nole’s backhand is a thing of beauty. But the most remarkable part of his game, that once former missing piece, has settled in. As the Serb strides onto the court these days, his mental edge is visible. He knows he will win and so does his opponent, ultimately.
One thing is sure. Djokovic may lose, but he will never quit again.