Thursday, January 28, 2016

Breaking barriers & scaling peaks - The Novak Djokovic way of Life

The most pertinent question running in the minds of followers of Tennis might well be this:
"Has Djokovic reached his peak or is there a level he is yet to reach & aspires to?"

Though the Pros in ATP circuit would like to believe they can contribute to a part of the answer, it looks like they really don't. Djokovic showed that today in the first 40 minutes in his dismantling of Roger Federer to the utter....let's call it blankness, for want of a better word.... of almost any tennis fan and that of the man on the other side of the net. I have never seen Federer being man-handled like this EVER in the time I have seen him play. I tell this after enduring so many heart-breaking losses that Federer suffered against Rafael Nadal. Against Nadal, the case has always been strategic 'noose-tightening' & slow death. Nadal would send forehand after forehand to the Federer backhand getting it to slowly cause damage to the Federer psyche making him commit errors from his forehand side as well as he attempts to neutralise by changing the patterns of play.

Today, it didn't seem so. It was a blow; a sucker-punch. Almost a knock-out! Federer was not 'allowed' to even get into the match as Djokovic took the first two sets 6-1 6-2. Federer didn't start off well with his first serves. Using that is one thing but what Novak did was much bigger than just using Federer's second serves. He was hitting clean and deep never giving Federer a single chance to come in to the net with an approach. There were no short balls on offer. The serves came back with hell of a lot of interest to paint the baseline leaving Federer utterly clueless. While Federer tried to hang in there on the baseline rallies with some good hitting which gets lost in the scoreline, the angles and power on some of Novak's forehands that came back as winners were baffling and induced multiple collective gasps from the crowd. One might agree or one might not. But what I saw today in those two sets was some hitting I have never seen before. It was as if Novak wanted to make a statement not just to Federer, not just to the crowd which he never gets to own thanks to their allegiance to Fed and Rafa, not just to the other semi-finalists but to his own self - to the self that he has carefully carved over years of toil, over years of dieting, over years of unwavering determination; To the self that kept on hanging as No.3 behind Fed and Rafa for 3.5 years before finally entering the circle. He, who once was known for his silly antics, for the nosy father of his, for fitness issues, has come a full circle with a positive H2H against Rafa (24-23) & Federer (23-22). When the entire fraternity gets ready to acknowledge the greatness of Djokovic (which will eventually happen after he wins a bunch of slams in the near future), his upper hand in these two rivalries need special space in the acknowledgment just for the fact that only with the most recent matches against them has he ever gone on to have a lead in both the H2H series. Precisely, for 10 long years, he has been chasing them before finally nosing ahead. All that after close to 4.5 years of utter domination in the 10 year period. That talks of something more than just domination. It talks of realisation of potential, of belief in abilities.

Djokovic seems to agree.
"In the end of the day it’s important that your convictions are stronger than your doubts", he told Jim Courier when asked on the fascinating H2H chase journeys.

Being able to stay consistently at the top of the game despite literally owning the field is as special as any quality a sportsman can possess! The reversal of H2Hs has just been the by-product of that.

As for Federer, I would have liked to see him more at the net. It is high time he realises the only space on the court that is going to be of any help for him against Novak is right there. He could fail like he did in the game he got broken in Set 4 but that was the right play. Ill-luck in the form of net cord and an unreal passing shot from Novak were what contributed to the break and not the idea of coming to the net. Having said that, not a lot of times does Federer get the credit he deserves for bringing the fight to the court in testing times. Not for nothing does the stat that he has never lost a Grand Slam match without creating break points stand true. For a moment, it looked like today might be that day; that today might be the day he would succumb to the loss by a scoreline worse than his worst outing in a hardcourt slam match which was eons back in 2001, when I was trying to figure out Integral Calculus (not that I have done it now!). But he wasn't ready to give up. In the midst of getting back to the groove with his service games holding (after being taken to 30-30 or deuce in almost every game) in set 3, he just had to come up with magic to create breaking opportunities which he did with an unbelievable run to the net to convert a Novak dropper into a winner. He held a further two times in the set against all odds to add respectability to the scoreline and more credence to his fighting quality. The fourth was a closely fought affair (with Federer squandering three second serves in the very first Novak service game) and just before Novak closed the affair 6-2 6-1 3-6 6-3 with 6 straight points came the point that explains why Federer is Federer & why he needs to keep playing the next week, the next season and the next decade to come.

Novak comes to the final as the most firm favourite for betters since, probably, Federer played Gonzalez in the 2007 Australian Open final. The other semi-final is expected to be a fine battle between one of the game's best returners in Andy Murray and one of its fine servers in Milos Raonic. Even as I feel Andy deserves a trophy in Australia (where he has reached 4 finals), I would like for it to happen later. I would like to see Raonic play Novak not because he can pose the No.1 any trouble but for the reason that the presence of a 25 year old in the final of a Grand Slam might augur well for the future as other 25 year olds can get the urge, the hope and aspire to reach there. Novak Djokovic seems to be in the mood to stay atop for the seasons to follow. You just can't let a 34 year old try and battle him all alone. Buck up, fellas. Climb fast. Go on and give Djokovic a poke at his back. He has set up his camp up there somewhere, go shake the tent.