Novak Djokovic is having a phenomenal and potentially record-breaking year. Even if he doesn't end up beating John McEnroe's Open era best winning percentage for a season, he will have won three Slams in his awe-inspiring effort where Johnny Mac only won two during his most successful season. By that measure, he is already having the best overall season any player in the Open era has ever enjoyed.
So, what enabled Djokovic to transition from perennial third wheel to Roger and Rafa into the Novak we see before us now? It's really pretty simple. He just got tougher.
Previously, Djokovic looked for ways to find the exit door rather than take the hard road to victory. As I've heard it said before, the extra mile is rarely crowded.
Djokovic constantly retired from matches. He got a very bad rap for this and was publicly chastised by Roger Federer, as well as a few other players and many of the Tennis Commentariat. Novak was simply unwilling to play through physical pain and unable to come through the other side of an emotional funk. If he got really behind, or slightly hurt, he was just "outta there."
Think about it...Novak has a great life. Even as No. 3 in the world, he was a celebrity in his home country. He has a steady and, by most people's taste, attractive girlfriend, he's rich by world standards but certainly by Serbian standards, he's famous, and more. And he was all of that without having to do anything other than simply remain one of the world's top tennis players. So that's what he did. He beat the players he was supposed to beat and it was the path of least resistance to at least be "in the conversation."
But a funny thing happened. And by funny, I'm talking both ironic and side-splitting funny. During a press conference prior to the U.S. Open two years ago (2009), Andy Roddick did more than just call this tendency out. He publicly mocked it. He started saying Djokovic must be the most courageous man in the entire world to be able to play with, among other ailments he listed, SARS, Bird Flu, Anthrax, and two broken hips.
Who would have thought that Andy Roddick, not intending to do Nole any favors with that move, would have been a catalyst to this type of season. But from that U.S. Open, Djokovic began to improve his stamina, his willingness to play through pain, and stopped quitting just because he got way behind. And it helped him learn how to win from behind...something he was never good at before because he had no practice doing it.
This, combined with some dietary changes and a marked improvement in his serving, all culminated the very next year with a finals appearance (his first) at the U.S. Open, a Davis Cup win for his home country, and a winning streak that would not be stopped until the following June at Roland Garros.
Between the 2009 and 2010 U.S. Open appearances, Novak finally became the player he always had the potential to be.
The teachers and coaches who are hardest on us are the ones that we hate in the moment. But they are the ones we look back on with so much fondness, adoration, loyalty and respect.
I'm sure Andy Roddick didn't mean to be such a spark in Nole's development...he was just going for an easy laugh at a presser to keep up the media love that he always gets for being so quotable. Because the "tough love" comments that Andy spoke that day were not coming from a place of mentorship (such as that coach or teacher), rather, from a mocking peer; the reaction from Djokovic can't be expected to be the same as that towards the hard teacher.
However, besides Nole's unwillingness, there may be another reason that Roddick hasn't been credited with playing such a role in Nole's ascension. It's possible nobody has made the connection.
In any event, Andy Roddick deserves a lot of thanks from Djokovic...even if his "assistance" wasn't welcome at the time it was given.