Novak Djokovic: Too Much Too Soon

JA AllenSenior Writer IMarch 21, 2009

INDIAN WELLS, CA - MARCH 13:  Novak Djokovic of Serbia fields questions from the media at a press conference during the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden March 13, 2009 in Indian Wells, California.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

What do Michael Chang, Roscoe Tanner, Pat Cash, Andy Roddick, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Tony Roche, Goran Ivanisevic, and Novak Djokovic have in common?  They all have one Grand Slam victory in their portfolios.  Only one...

You could argue that winning the 2008 Australian Open was the worst thing that could have happened to then up-and-coming crowd favorite Novak Djokovic.  If you made such a claim, it would be difficult to dispute...on one level.

After reaching the finals of the U.S. Open in 2007 and playing a brilliant, if timorous match against world No. 1 Roger Federer, the Serb’s popularity soared as he appeared on late night talk shows and was inevitably persuaded to imitate his fellow tennis players on tour.

He was the media darling of the 2007 U.S. Open. 

The expectations for the 20-year-old Djokovic rose exponentially after winning his first grand slam in Melbourne in 2008.  The immediate discussion centered on Novak replacing a supposedly fading Nadal as the No. 2 player in the world. 

In the meantime, Novak’s parents did not endear themselves to any one with their proclamation that “the king was dead!”  This, of course, referred to Roger Federer.

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Djokovic began that quixotic quest of supplanting Rafael Nadal as the No. 2 player in earnest in the early spring of 2008 at Indian Wells, where he captured another championship.

The win of the Masters Series Pacific Life Open at Indian Wells gave Novak his ninth career title and moved him ever closer to Nadal. Unfortunately for Djokovic, he was upset by Kevin Anderson in the second round of the next hard court Master Series Tournament in Miami.

After retiring to Roger Federer in Monte Carlo during the semifinals, Novak bounced back to win the Masters Series Title in Rome, marking his 10th singles crown and his fourth Masters Series Shield. 

But the players and the press were beginning to notice how often Djokovic retired from matches for seemingly inadequate reasons.

Novak followed up his win in Rome with a loss to Nadal during the semifinals at Hamburg.

He then lost again to Nadal during the semifinals at Roland Garros as Nadal closed in on another French Open Title, quietly shutting the door on Novak taking over the No. 2 seed.

Novak’s discomfort on grass became apparent as he fell again to Nadal at the final of the Queen’s Club, losing 7-6, 7-5.  When he lost in the second round at Wimbledon to unseeded Marat Safin, the tone of the conversation about the No. 3 seed began to change.

Novak was no longer the media darling.  After Nadal swept Federer’s feet out from under him during the Wimbledon finals, the Spaniard became the new focal point of the press as he closed in on the No. 1 ranking that Federer seemed powerless to defend.

Summer heat brought more defeat for the 21-year-old, who failed to defend his title at the Roger’s Cup in Toronto, losing in the quarterfinals to Andy Murray

He lost again to Murray in the finals at Cincinnati in straight sets even after defeating Nadal in the semis. 

After losing to Nadal in the semifinals of the 2008 Summer Olympics, Novak was almost in tears at the net as he congratulated Rafael. 

But it was the U.S. Open in New York where the world seemed to sour of Novak Djokovic after being crowned the crowd favorite one short year ago. 

Plagued by a hip injury while engaged in a match with Tommy Robredo, Novak called two time outs, claiming both injury and exhaustion. 

Nonetheless, Novak won the match and that prompted his next opponent, Andy Roddick, to quip that Novak was, “...either quick to call a trainer or the most courageous guy of all time.” 

Roddick implied that Novak had a reputation for being “injured” and he proceeded to list all of the ailments that might be tormenting Djokovic.

After defeating Roddick in the next round, Novak responded bitterly to Andy’s remarks and the New York audience booed him.  He lost in the semifinals to Federer who went on to win his fifth straight U.S. Open championship.

Djokovic lost to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the Thailand Open during the finals and followed that by losing in Madridto Ivo Karlovic.  Three weeks later, he lost again to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris.

Although some say he backed in, Novak won the 2008 year end championship in Shanghai, defeating Davydenko in the final.  But this one victory did not shore up the overwhelming loss in confidence and maturity for the young Serb.

In 2009, during the Australian Open, Novak retired again against Roddick during a quarterfinal match citing exhaustion, muscle cramps, and soreness. 

This drew unfavorable comments from those players remaining who pointed out that Novak’s retirements were becoming too frequent...that he had retired in three of four Grand Slam tournaments.

His latest loss to Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, 6-3, 6-2, was marked by its lack of movement, its lack of energy by Novak, who seemed to give up without a fight.

These are the actions of a young man who has lost his way—who is unable to summon any self-belief or confidence in his game. 

This is the consequence of rising too far, too fast without the maturity necessary to withstand the press and the pressure that comes with success.    

Novak Djokovic does have the game to be a champion.  His ground strokes, his movement, his serve and his speed are all superior. 

What is lacking at the present is his confidence.  His mental faculties are not up to the challenge.  This is all aggravated by the truckload of expectations dumped on him once he won that first major. 

Sometimes winning too fast or rising too fast is the kiss of death for an athlete or a performer.  It can unravel promise and fragment a career.

Can Djokovic move forward and out of his current malaise and find a way to win that second grand slam?  Stay tuned!