Decoding Djokovic’s Halo

Novak-Djokovic 16 Trophy

First they ignored him, then they ridiculed him, then they hated him, and then he won.

The last time I wrote about Novak Djokovic was in 2012 after THAT Australian Open final against Rafael Nadal. I had pointed out then how Djokovic’s remarkable success seems to stem from the fact that he does not take things too seriously but at the same time works very hard on his game. Four years is a long time in modern tennis. Since the Australian Open in 2012, Djokovic has won 6 more Grand Slams including this tournament 3 times. He has been at a peak level seldom seen in men’s tennis in the Open Era just falling short of a calendar Grand Slam in 2015. Except for the Australian Open in 2014, he has not done worse than the semifinal in any Grand Slam since the 2010 French Open. By any standards that is exceptional.

In 2015 he was nearly invincible even when compared to greats in other sports that year.

Djoko’s 2015

W-L 82-6 (93%)

Grand Slams: Australian Open, Wimbledon, US Open

ATP Ranking Points earned: 16585 (most ever accumulated in a year, more than the No.2 and No.3 that year COMBINED)

Prize Money: $21 million (largest ever earned in a year)

His performance and consistency were so phenomenal people were running out of adjectives to describe them. Yet, somehow Djokovic never evoked the kind of flowery prose that flowed from sportswriters’ keyboards for Roger Federer or the respect that an assessment of Rafael Nadal in his prime commanded. Somehow in a Golden Age of men’s tennis where we swooned over the artistry of Federer’s Da Vinci or Nadal’s Michaelangelo had entered this impostor who did not as much do art as he painted by numbers. But he outshone his peers in a way that was unimaginable even when Djokovic had a breakout year in 2011 and that performance at the 2012 Australian Open where he beat Nadal.

So, what is the deal with Novak Djokovic? The once showboaty, standoffish player who used to grind opponents into exasperated submission with annoying tactics (his ridiculously long ball bouncing before his serve routine was particularly despised) now suddenly appears an island of calmness, composure, great skill and humility. Did the Djoker suddenly stop being an agent of chaos? Did the painter by numbers suddenly start producing brushstrokes of extreme beauty spontaneously? The short answer is no.

Djokovic never plays beautiful shots in the conventional meaning of the term. If a Federer’s backhand is the maple wood hand crafted Grand Piano, Djokovic’s is a note crafted on the piano app of Apple’s Garage Band software. Nadal’s aggression is a majestic Concorde to Djokovic’s quiet Airbus A300 like efficiency. Djokovic’s secret to success and the longevity of that success has been, well longevity. He learnt to outlast his opponents on the court. He was both physically and mentally impossible to tear down. A wrong call or a poor challenge could easily fluster Murray, even irk the usually dignified Federer, but not Djokovic. ESPN profiled his fitness regime in a 2012 article where Eli Saslow observed:

In his rise to the top of his sport, Djokovic has turned himself into a case study of what it now requires to be No. 1. Every detail is crucial. Every angle is considered. Every moment a chance to gain an incremental edge.

Dojokovic himself was asked this question after he had won his latest grand slam, the Australia Open 2016. He said he couldn’t “pick one thing and say that was the secret of success”

[I]t’s not that easy. If it’s that easy and simple and say one or two things, then I think many people would do it. It’s actually many years of obviously commitment, hard work, sacrifice and dedication, not just to training sessions, you know, the things that you are obliged to do as a tennis player, but also to a lifestyle. Trying to devote most of your time, energy, thought to make yourself the best person and the best player possible.

He has always been good at understanding that success on the court is paradoxically a complex mixture of things but also keeping things straightforward when on the court. So, while a Federer tries his SABR (Sneak Attack by Roger) or a Richard Gasquet almost exclusively deals in elegant backhands, and Angelique Kerber tries to get most value out of her drop shots,  Djokovic just looks at returning the ball deep into the opponents court and wait for them to make a mistake. He is one of the best of all time in absorbing pressure and turning defence into offence. He has built that patience and discipline in his game (and he himself admits that taking up Yoga has helped).

The problem is all these tiny bits add up insidiously, behind the scenes and there is no Grand Design to hold forth and celebrate Djokovic as a champion. Which is why he’s never been the easy crowd favourite. But even there he has built a wall brick by brick, winning fans over one tiny improvement at a time. Now his success has become the banner under which his popularity rides. As he himself says,“staying respectful to all my opponents and my colleagues and to this sport is a key to continue on and maintain this level of success and performance. I hope. This is kind of approach to help me to get to where I am. I don’t want to step away from it.”

Clearly Djokovic 2.0 has found an inner balance that comes not from detachment, but from blending the different facets of your life – professional and private. He said at the post match press conference after the 2016 Australia Open final, “you can’t separate yourself professionally and privately. You’re the same person. So all this emotions that are maybe trapped, you know, that occur in your private life, the issues, the problems that we all face, you need to surface them.”

His tennis might not be the most beautiful to watch, but that balance and humility he has cultivated certainly is.

I’ll leave you with Djokovic’s smile at the 2011 Australian Open and in 2016. See if you can spot the one which is of a man with a sense of inner balance.


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