Last month, as players prepared to start their 2016 campaigns, I posed the question “Can Djokovic be stopped?” The short version of my answer was probably not, but that currently only Roger Federer stands a chance. The recent Australian Open confirmed that the World No 2 (Murray) continues to pose no threat to the World No 1, and that the World No 3 (Federer) has more work to do if he’s to go beyond taking the occasional match from Novak. So is the World No 1 really THAT good?
In short, yes he is! But things didn’t always look so rosy for Novak. While his tennis of late has undoubtably been stunning, what impresses me most about Djokovic is the transformation he has made as a person over recent years. Earlier in his career Novak did not endear himself to fans and fellow players. He had a reputation of being disingenuous and soft when it came to medical issues on court. On four occasions he quit in the middle of grand slam matches, for reasons such as breathing difficulties and blisters. He was derided by his opponents, even typically respectful players like Roger Federer were driven to comment, “I think he’s a joke, you know, when it comes to his injuries.”
Watching his post-match press conference, after winning the Australian Open for a record-equaling sixth time, I was struck by how far he has come. I have never seen a player so relaxed and open in front of the press. He was philosophical and even spiritual at times as he attempted to fully explain his thoughts and feelings, a far cry from the days when he often had to defend his actions on court. While a smaller-minded person might have chosen to use their star status to stick it to their former critics with a “well, look at me now” kind of attitude, Djokovic has risen well above that, becoming one of the most respectful and respected players on tour.
He finds himself in a position of power and domination that very few athletes will ever achieve, but yet he remains genuinely humble and is determined to keep himself that way, refusing to ponder the chasm between himself and his nearest rivals, lest he become arrogant and get “a big slap from karma.” Espousing respect for his opponents and appreciation for his current position have become a common theme in his interviews.
His rivals may be hoping for the day when he wakes up fearful of losing his status as top dog…but they’ll be waiting a long time. He knows that he is “playing the best tennis of (his) life” and fully embraces the opportunities before him to become even greater. Referring to his latest achievement, equalling Bjorn Borg’s and Rod Laver’s grand slam tallies, Djokovic refreshingly admits “I can’t lie and say that I didn’t think about it,” adding that “it served as a great motivation.”
It’s this honesty with himself, awareness of and comfort with his current position in life, and respect for his opponents that will ensure he goes on to win many more slams.
TIP OF THE WEEK - Topspin in moderation
There are times when circumstances call for ripping the ball with heavy topspin and times when hitting a flatter groundstoke is the better option. However, when you watch above average players these days, especially juniors, you would think that the objective in tennis is purely to see who can impart more spin on the ball!
The dipping characteristic of a topspin drive has many useful applications, such as making the ball dip at the net player’s feet, helping a lob drop inside the baseline, and hitting a short angle shot aggressively. It can also help very firmly hit drives land inside the baseline without having to aim extremely low over the net. However, too often players apply maximum topspin to regular rally balls, resulting in shots that land short.
I advise my students to only use as much topspin as is necessary to achieve the desired effect, which on a rally ball should be to land the ball deep into the opponent’s court while maintaining a safe margin over the net and inside the baseline. Therefore, the degree of spin applied should be adjusted based on the intended speed and height of the shot as well as the distance from the net when striking the ball. Applying excessive topspin is simply a waste of energy that will help your opponent make better returns. See you on the court!
Dan Barrie is the Tennis Director at Bahrain Tennis Academy and is a USPTA Elite Professional. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org