From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.34 :: NO.28 :: Jul. 14, 2011

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COVER STORY

Even jokers can become aces

Wimbledon marked Novak Djokovic's fifth win in as many tournament finals this year over defending champion Rafael Nadal. The victor of the 125th Championships was superior in movement, better of anticipation and more daring than the vanquished. It was a childhood dream realised for the Serb, a scenario sweetened further by his ascension to the summit of the tennis world at the expense of the displaced Nadal. Over to Kunal Diwan.

AP

What does Djokovic's taking over of the top spot signify for men's tennis? “My experience says that his level is not forever,” said Nadal after surrendering his Wimbledon crown to the Serb. “Even for me, when I was winning three Grand Slams in a year, I knew it was not forever.”

Now that blades of Centre Court grass have been ingested and assimilated, Novak Djokovic has made Wimbledon his own, almost in the same way that Boris Becker did many summers ago when his grazed knee bled into the consecrated turf, immutably joining the two. Djokovic's first All England crown, his second Grand Slam title of the year and third overall, is more an announcement than a win, a declaration that his time on top will be a prolonged one and not some half-yearly streak of transience.

Wimbledon marked Djokovic's fifth win in as many tournament finals this year over defending champion Rafael Nadal. The result was mildly asymmetric — courtesy of the loss of a set — but the outcome was a rightful one, the victor of the 125th Championships being superior in movement, better of anticipation and more daring than the vanquished, which is not always the case. It was a childhood dream realised for the Serb, a scenario sweetened further by his ascension to the summit of the tennis world at the expense of the displaced Nadal.

Grand Slams, especially those with first-time winners, have a tendency to generate loose talk of beginnings and ends of eras, until the next major comes around and the chatter — god-forbidding another new champion — starts anew. Djokovic, 24, already has three trophies that matter. He has reached the final of three of the last four majors and his only loss in 2011 has been to Roger Federer at the French Open, where the relative slowness of the surface reduced to redundancy the Swiss' diminished speed and reaction time.


In stark contrast to Djokovic's stupendous 2011 stands a phase in his career that succeeded his first Grand Slam win at the 2008 Australian Open. For over three years Djokovic's major cupboard saw no further addition as he survived in the shadow of Federer and Nadal, wracking up semifinal appearances, but exiting at the hands of either supremo at the business end.

The turnaround came late in 2010. A racket switch, a hypo-allergic gluten-free diet and the optimal deployment of his elastic presence on court transformed a perennial semifinalist into a genuine title contender. The signs were imminent when he led Serbia to the Davis Cup and followed it up with a U.S. Open final. Early this year, the double-handed backhand turning into an obedient tool, the Serb strove to shed his one-Slam-wonder tag at Melbourne, and succeeded, setting the scene for more success as the season swung to clay.

The rise of the Djoker would have put a smile on the face of all those who were slightly flustered by the two-way autocracy established by the Swiss and the Spaniard. Here was proof (and there cannot possibly be greater proof of sheer dominance than a 48-1 season record) that the old-fashioned virtues of diligence, patience and persistence were still viable traits to counter otherworldly skills or legs from outer space.

For a long time Federer was confounding everybody with his changes in pace and shots only he could conceive, before Nadal blasted him out with the power of his crosscourt forehand. Federer's single-handed backhand wilted under the assault and the Spaniard was the king of all he surveyed until Djokovic revamped himself into the world beater he now is.

A spotless season record against Nadal compels one to consider if Djokovic is indeed playing at a level higher than what Nadal, or for that matter, Federer did, during his days of domination. Or is the latest rearrangement at the top more a case of marginal and mutual adjustment — one slipping a touch and the other scaling up to occupy the void?

What does the Serb's taking over of the top spot signify for men's tennis? “My experience says that his level is not forever,” said Nadal after surrendering his Wimbledon crown to the Serb. “Even for me, when I was winning three Grand Slams in a year, I knew it was not forever.” It is obvious that sustaining an abnormally high level of play on a competitive circuit where everybody in the top-40 is investing every ounce of time, energy and resources in a common attainable is an impossibility.

But more than anything else, Djokovic's rise should hearten those who follow further down in the rankings. For, if the Serb could successfully attempt a drastic rethink on how to win on the Tour, after being thoroughly trounced by his two former nemeses, so can the others. Andy Murray has been a perpetual presence in the last-four at Grand Slams, making the No. 4 spot his own from where he has an aging Federer in his sights. Robin Soderling, Gael Monfils and Tomas Berdych are all young and in the top 10, an ideal combination with which to gun for greater glory. Juan Martin del Potro needs another few months to get back in the groove, and where better to stake his claim in the upper echelons of the tennis fraternity than at the U.S. Open, the site of his astounding 2009 triumph.

There are other factors too, which will influence the way the hard court season unfurls. The compulsion of competing in a certain number of tier tournaments in a year, the onerous job of not only accumulating but also defending ATP points, and all along striking a balance between protecting one's ranking and swelling one's major tally all feature prominently in the top player's head. Nadal has gone on record saying that he doesn't care for the No.1 ranking as long as he keeps picking up Grand Slams.

In his case, half-an-eye is likely to be on Federer's apparently insurmountable tally of 16 — the difference of six titles a mean ask even of a player of the quality of Nadal. What of Federer then? A step slower, but the regal sneer, the Swiss is still good enough to make the second week, and possibly a little beyond, at the majors. What about an unprecedented 17th title? I wouldn't put my money on it.




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