Djokovic: Human not Robot, Accomplishes Greatest Ever Feat in Men’s Tennis?

By Matt Roberts 

Novak Djokovic is the French Open Champion, at last. By beating Andy Murray – again – in last Sunday’s Roland Garros final, the Serb joined tennis’ pantheon of greats. He became the eighth man in history – alongside Fred Perry, Don Budge, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – to complete the career Grand Slam.

In fact, by holding all four slams simultaneously across three different surfaces, Djokovic might just have accomplished the greatest ever feat in men’s tennis. The last time a man – then it was Laver – held all four slams at once was shortly after Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon. And even then, Laver won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open on grass.

Since 1969, many men have laid their claims for the sport’s greatest achievement: Borg’s five consecutive doubles at the French Open and Wimbledon, Federer’s 23 straight major semi-final appearances and Nadal’s nine Roland Garros titles all spring to mind. Regardless, by holding all four slams at once, Djokovic has done something Federer and Nadal will almost certainly never do. ‘The Novak Slam’, ‘The Djoker Slam’ – call it what you like – for the man who was once in their shadows as a player, and who has always been in their shadows on the global sporting stage, it must be so pleasing to have one-upped his closest rivals.

What’s surprising is that is has taken him this long. Of the aforementioned men to have won the Career Slam, Djokovic’s road has been the longest. While Don Budge took just nine major appearances to win all four, Djokovic has taken 46. The major obstacle, of course, has been the greatness of Nadal on clay, the Spaniard beating him on six occasions in Paris. And when it wasn’t him, it was faultless performances from Federer in 2011 and Wawrinka in 2015. But this year, Djokovic safely negotiated his kind draw and faced Murray for his title shot. For all of Murray’s greatness, and he is a truly great tennis player, Djokovic is in his comfort zone playing him. After his most recent win, the World No.1 has now won 13 of the pair’s last 15 matches.

The final itself was strange. Prior to this one, against his biggest rivals in the biggest matches in 2016, Djokovic had played first set ‘statement tennis’ – smothering opponents and winning 6-1 in half an hour. With this in mind, two pre-match stats leapt off the page: Murray had never beaten Djokovic from a set down and never lost at the French Open from a set up. In other words, the start was crucial and Murray had to change the pattern of their recent major meetings. And he did: hitting his forehand with punch he broke Djokovic twice in the opening set to take it 6-3. But as it turned out: different pattern, same result. Somewhere at the start of the second set, the course of the match swerved dramatically and Djokovic took control to run away a 3-6 6-1 6-2 6-4 winner.

djok 28-0

Playing Djokovic in a grand slam has become an exercise in futility. In his 28 consecutive major victories, he’s been pushed to five sets only twice: by Anderson at Wimbledon and Simon at the Australian Open, both in the fourth round. There’s already a YouTube video showing all of his match points on this historic run. It’s perhaps the most boring video I’ve ever watched in its entirety. What struck me is how underwhelming the celebrations are at the end of each match and how straightforward the victories seem.  This is interesting because over the past 12 months, many of Djokovic’s matches stand out: his comeback against Anderson at Wimbledon, the first two sets of the final at SW19 against Federer, Bautista-Agut and Lopez giving him problems in New York, Federer pushing him again at the US Open, Simon frustrating and neutralising him in Melbourne. But this is a Djokovic trait since the start of 2015. He often plays close sets, but he rarely plays close matches. He loses the occasional battle, but he always wins the war. So, what really stand out are not whole matches, but moments of matches.

This ability – to ease to the finish – is rare. The tennis scoring system is designed so that sets and matches can be close. But Djokovic is regularly able to suddenly turn close matches radically in his favour. He does it through dominating the fundamentals of tennis: serve and return. His serve is reliable, accurate and backed up by the world’s best groundstrokes. Meanwhile, he’s re-defined the concept of the return. As long as he can get a racket on the ball, which he does better than most, he can hit any type of return: aggressive or defensive, angled or straight, deep or short. When he finds his groove on return, he can dictate proceedings in every single game and he leaves players washing cars in a thunderstorm.

All this paints a picture that tennis is easy for Djokovic. While it’s a characteristic of many great athletes to make the extraordinary look routine, the descriptions of Djokovic as robotic and machine-like are over-used and under-thought.

From a purely technical perspective, it’s an understandable conclusion to arrive at. Generally, his brand of tennis doesn’t match the beauty of Federer’s or have the bravado of Nadal’s. The casual tennis fan may even draw breath more frequently watching the firepower of Thiem or the swagger of Kyrgios. On the whole, Djokovic’s tennis is functional, precise and lacking weakness. But don’t believe for a moment that he lacks court craft. His backhand drop shot – a shot fraught with danger and difficulty – is gorgeous. His angular groundstrokes mean he spreads the court better than anyone ever has. His balance makes him part-funambulist. But he’s not part-robot. Machines are rigid; Djokovic’s skiing heritage and prowess makes him supple and flexible, part-contortionist if you will.

Djokovic is a complex human and to become a master of the court, he’s had to master himself.

Moreover, character wise, he’s one of the most interesting in the sport. He’s affected by very human struggles, and over his angst-filled clay court swing we’ve experienced them all with him. First, there was the peculiar loss to journeyman Jiri Vesely in Monte Carlo on a rare day when he played with the handbrake on and was unable to release it. Despite getting back on track with the title in Madrid, there were certainly signs of stress as he struggled to close out back-to-back matches. Next, in Rome, he was visibly affected by unfavourable scheduling and succumbed uncharacteristically meekly and irritably to Murray in the final. Then, at Roland Garros, it looked like the outside forces might be conspiring against him. He landed in Nadal’s half, felt the pressure intensify as the Spaniard withdrew and had to deal with a disrupted schedule after a rain-prolonged, 3-day match with Bautista-Agut. All this pressure culminated in a bizarre racket throw during his quarter-final against Berdych which almost struck a line judge. Had it done so, he would have been disqualified.

All these incidents are signs of distress as Djokovic grappled with the history books. To call him a robot is to degrade his achievement. Robots don’t have to battle with mental doubts and obsessions. But Djokovic is a complex human and to become a master of the court, he’s had to master himself. While the racket throws represent regrettable lapses in his self-control, in general his mindset is positive and his demeanour is calm. This is a man who believes in the power of mindfulness and meditation and doesn’t like the word ‘obsession’ because ‘it doesn’t come from the right emotion.’

Djokovic has also always displayed a want – perhaps even a need – to be loved. The mismatch between his on court superiority and his off court inferiority has clearly bothered him and he’s always displayed that emotion publicly. At this year’s French Open, his attempt to win over the fans was manifested in the form of a rather manufactured, match-winning celebration involving the tournament ball kids. (The irony here is that it wasn’t really necessary. Although the crowds have rarely warmed to Djokovic, in Paris they had already started to fall in love with him.) For some, the celebration will be nothing less than a nice gesture and a bit of fun. But, given his history, it’s hard not to see a link between it and his deep desire to be loved. This isn’t a criticism. As Patti Smith sings – ‘Desirous hunger is the fire I breathe, Love is a banquet on which we feed’ – the need to be loved is a human need, like water and food. As a result of Federer and Nadal’s popularity, Djokovic has felt this painful truth more intensely than perhaps any other top athlete. Not only has he been a victim of his era in this sense, he’s also been a victim of his own success. Fans love weakness and such is his self-mastery and the banality of his on court greatness, it often seems like Djokovic doesn’t have any. We know, of course, that he does.

You don’t have to like Djokovic. But don’t call him a robot. Instead, adjust your definition of what’s humanly possible on a tennis court.

Pictures: Marianne Bevis, Screenshot from Tennis Abstract

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