There is much to say about Novak Djokovic’s tennis game, and you cannot reduce his mastery of the sport to any single factor. But if the need existed, as in headline writing — see above — patience would be worth some consideration. The Australian Open winner and restored world No. 1 knows the value of patience.
This is an appreciated but perhaps downplayed virtue in tennis and other sports, perhaps because it deflects from the qualities of sheer physicality like speed and reflex and eye-arm that are on the surface more dramatic. More “explosive” in the typical tennis lexicon.
Patience is needed, however, for the effective use of reflex and its close relative intuition. It is a key element of strategy, of sticking to a game plan or adjusting it when needed, with neither haste nor panic.
Novak Djokovic learned both patience and intuition with good teachers and countless hours of practice and training, and it stayed with him. He had to listen for incoming bombardments when, as a child in Belgrade during the NATO air war against Serbia, he hit against pockmarked walls and uneven broken courts, learned when to finish an imaginary point quickly and dash for shelter or hang in a little longer to get into a better position.
Like his friend Andy Murray, he is a big-hearted gutsy, never-quit player, and, like Roger Federer, he is an analytical, thoughtful player. He uses his brain all the time. What all coaches tell their charges, he does perhaps more consistently than almost anyone else: “build the point” and “wait for the moment” to “release the trigger.” The idea is not only to “hit it where they ain’t,” but to put them in a position where you can do that.
It sounds simple, but it is one of the aspects of this game that is most pleasing to watch. And with the great maestri of the sport, typically the Big Four of the past two decades, Djokovic is as good or better at this than any of his peers. Particularly compared to Roger Federer, who likes to close the point as quickly as possible, and does so with some of the most breathtaking, acrobatic, graceful shot-making in anyone’s memory, Djokovic is fundamentally a defensive player, who knows he will make the shot that will make his opponent make the last one — into the net or out of bounds.
His great rivals now are fading away into their post-tour careers. Roger Federer has an Africa-oriented foundation and a shoe brand, among other interests. Rafael Nadal has what is said to be the best tennis academy in the world located on his native Mallorca. I have never visited, so I cannot say for a fact that it is better than the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, Florida, which is now called IMG Academy, and anyway these things are not easily quantifiable. Hillsdale or Harvard? Bronx Science or Dalton? Ask Diane Ravitch. And Andy Murray has his own activities, notably medical philanthropy; he was a recipient of the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award in 2022. (READ MORE from Roger Kaplan: RIP Nick Bollettieri: Tennis Teacher, Coach, and Mentor)
Murray and Nadal are still on the tour, but Sir Andrew exited after two courageous rounds at Melbourne Park, playing with a reconstructed hip, and Nadal was beaten in the second and revealed afterward that he would be out for at least eight weeks with a hip problem. Federer retired last year, saying that the surgeries on his knee had not got him back to where he could compete at the level he expects of himself.
Thus, the man of Belgrade. At 35, he has had a few physical ailments, including a hamstring injury, which he played through at Melbourne Park, but by all accounts, he is good for another five years at the top, if not 10. If not 20, for that matter. Statistically, he is on course to get the most majors (presently, he is tied for the tops with Nadal at 22), the most Australian Opens (already tops with 10), and more.
Was it all due to patience? Of course not; but he needed patience to get here and to keep going. The same age as Murray, he had to wait for the older Federer and the slightly older Nadal to show him their vulnerabilities, which he learned to exploit. He had to counter their specialties, Nadal’s huge topspin and Federer’s pinpoint service and bull’s-eye forehand. Among others — because, obviously, these two (Federer in particular) were adapting and improving throughout their own dominant years, no less than he.
A defensive player, he kept improving his return of serve, said by many commentators to be the best in the sport today. He breaks at will, it seems — in the ninth game of a set, for example, so he can serve it out; midway through a tiebreak, to the same effect. Indeed, he closed out the first two sets in the Australia Open with the same serve over the alley on the deuce side. Stefanos Tsitsipas lunged and caught them both, and both times sent them long.
“I want to win as many Grand Slams,” he said afterward, and who can blame him? (He means majors; strictly speaking, the grand slam refers to winning all four majors in the same calendar year.) These are the biggest stages on the tour. Joel Drucker, a learned and keen observer of the game for many years, reminds his readers that the importance of the majors is a relatively modern phenomenon, linked to the flattening of the sport. With the evolution of equipment and a year-long schedule, tennis has gone from individual to team sport.
Winners in accepting their trophies invariably thank their teams, as well as their opponents, the fans, the ball boys and girls, and sometimes their spouses and parents. The teams include nutritionists, perchance psychologists, strength trainers, and even coaches. When coaches and players part often, which seems to happen more on the women’s side than the men’s, you know something is not clicking, but you never know what, though you can guess. Federer and Nadal kept the same coach for most of their careers; Murray and Djokovic tried some variety to adjust for a given stage in their professional evolution or even a specific tournament.
Drucker points out that the surfaces, which traditionally are quite different from place to place, are now closer in feel and bounce than at any other time, which would be one reason Djokovic can win everywhere and in particular can still expect to make a Grand Slam — a goal he nearly reached in 2021, when Daniil Medvedev stopped him at Flushing Meadows.
Beaten in three sets, he was visibly crushed. But he was patient. Australian border authorities detained him for being un-COVID-vaccinated last year, locked him up in a quarantine hotel, and deported him, despite Tennis Australia having assured him that he could compete with a medical exception, which other players were granted. He was disgusted and aggrieved, but he could wait: and the wait paid off. He went through the tournament this year dropping only one set, showing, with his feet and his racquet, brain, and heart, that no one could play at his level.
This only means his competition is on its way already. Djokovic is the best, but he will be challenged, maybe as soon as the next big tournament at the Indian Wells Masters, maybe during the spring clay season. U.S. Open champ Carlos Alcaraz, who was not Down Under due to injury, will be ready to pounce, as will others of his age or a little older, notably Americans Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe. Dominance is a fleeting thing.
For the moment, though, it made Tennis Australia happy that bygones were bygones, and plus, they had the consolation of an Aussie win in men’s doubles. It seemed from afar — you really can only see so much, with the modern high-tech corporate dominant technology, which is not to regret the days of carrier pigeons, but frankly reporting should be live — Djokovic played all his matches at night. The thought arises inevitably that he was being given a little help from the powers that are at Tennis Australia, guilt-wracked by the treatment he received last year, or needing a total marketing product for their corporate reasons, or something.
You can say it scarcely matters, the way he was playing, but the daytime matches, hot and often windblown, provoked more than a few complaints from the players. If they felt guilty for giving him an advantage, last year’s guilt breeding this year’s, they took it out on his dad, who has been his most steadfast supporter. They caught him chatting with some Russian fans who had flags and a Putin poster. Maybe Srđan Đoković, one of Serbia’s top skiers, just wanted to talk Russian. The political correcto crowd got on the case and Tennis Australia frowned and the father opted out of Rod Laver Stadium during the semi when his son crushed American Tommy Paul, and the final against Tsitsipas, who was crushed too, though not as handily.
Whatever else this demonstrates, it shows Mr. D. had no doubts about how his son would do. Maybe this fierce family feeling is the last defensive square against the total corporate takeover of big sports. But that is a question of another day. Show a little patience.