The One That Never Went Away

This is an opinion piece from one of our co-founders, Rajkamal Vasu, penned down a few years back. It does make for a good read even today.

 

The One That Never Went Away

This is a tale of two tennis players born within a week of each other.

The first, Novak Djokovic, shot on to the scene in spectacular fashion in 2007, doing the unthinkable. Beating Federer and Nadal on hard courts. Beating the top 3 in the world too. All in one tournament.

Djoker then proceeded to win the Australian Open in 2008. An epic match with Nadal followed at Queen’s. And then a Masters cup win in late 2008. He stretched Nadal the hardest on clay in 2009, and looked set to join Federer and Nadal in the top echelons of the game.

Only, he didn’t.

It is difficult to see where it all fell away and how. Perhaps it was the fact that his physical fitness wasn’t up to scratch. The constant ill-feeling among players and fans alike about his retirements from matches didn’t help. Either way, 2009 turned out to be all about Federer. Federer’s annus mirabilis.

And the guy who finally stopped Federer’s grand slam streak wasn’t Novak or Nadal, it was Del Potro. He seemed like the next really good player. A new era seemed to have arrived. Djoker had stepped back into the shadows from where he had emerged.

Most of 2010 wasn’t any better for the Djoker. In fact, it was significantly worse. Federer reclaimed the Australian Open. Nadal ran away with the rest of the year till a late Federer revival. Del Potro was injured. 2010 was Nadal’s annus mirabilis. Talk of 2011 centered around a possible Rafa slam.

Where was the Djoker? The Djoker continued watching from the wilderness. His serve had fallen away now too, and he showed only glimpses of the player who wowed the world in 2007.

There was another challenger to Federer and Nadal who had made his own surge in late 2008- Andy Murray. He had shot to fame by amassing a superior head to head against Federer, mostly by dint of beating him in hard courts on non-grand slam events. In fact, for the Australian Open 2009, he was anointed favourite.

What happened since then was that Murray kept being hit off the court by big hitters in grand slams, including twice by Federer in slam finals. But his game seemed to be improving to the point where, by the end of 2010, he had beaten Federer and Nadal in the same masters series tournament. He also demolished Federer in straight sets in Shanghai.

The pair took their revenge on Murray in the end of the season World Tour Finals, but the general consensus seemed to be that with Del Potro away from the scene, Murray was as likely as anyone to win a slam in 2011.

When the world was talking of Del Potro and Soderling and Murray instead of Djoker who for some reason was considered an underdog in spite of being ranked above everyone else, his response was to keep toiling away and hope that his chance would come. There was a hint of a revival from Djoker in 2010. The signs were there in US Open 2010 where he took Federer out in 5 sets, before running into Nadal the next day.

The same old story for a tennis player in this era. Djokovic could have shrugged his shoulders, said to himself that he had tried, and withdrawn into the shadows yet again.

Only, he didn’t.

In 2007, when he first burst on the scene, one had to be amazed at the completeness of the Serb’s game. Every shot was supremely efficient without being flamboyant. Even when it all fell away in 2010, Novak’s response had been to keep working on the physical aspect of his game till he felt stronger than ever. And to work on his serve till it went back to its level in 2007.

Only a Federer in full flight could see him off three times towards the end of 2010.

The inevitable opportunity that Djoker had been waiting for came again in Melbourne in 2011. Djokovic had quietly progressed through the opening rounds before thrashing Berdych, no mean player himself, 6-1 7-6 6-1. His reward would be a match with Federer.

Djoker grabbed the chance with both hands, demolishing Federer in straight sets in a match that was a treat to watch. Two aggressive shot makers were going full tilt at each other. But Djoker was to prevail. Djoker had now beaten Federer thrice in grand slams, and twice in straight sets. No one else had beaten Federer more than once in a hard court grand slam since he became number 1. And Djoker had done it thrice. He was playing at his best after a long time, maybe even better than he had ever played.

In the final, he would play Murray. It seemed just right. The best two players in the world had gone out. The two next would battle in an effort to lay a claim to being the heir-in-waiting. This was the culmination that tennis fans had been long awaiting.

Murray, for so long considered the heir to Federer and Nadal, had, over the years, rightly been lauded for his versatility. Djoker had always been the quiet one, whose progress was overlooked. But unlike Djoker, Murray’s game could lapse into a worrying passiveness at times, particularly in slams.

To those that had watched the two over the years and specifically in AO 2011, the final with both playing their best could only go one way. And so it proved. The result wasn’t surprising. But the manner of the win was.

Murray never got into the match. Djoker seemed to break Murray’s serve at will. Novak was the brick ball past which a winner could hardly be hit. And, when the moments came, Novak was the one stepping into the court and blasting winners past a hapless Murray. The score line flattered the Scot – it could have been much worse.

For those praying for Djokovic, for those in love with the Serb’s aggressive and complete game ever since they saw him play in 2007, it was a day of vindication, a day of triumph. For those waiting for an aggressive player post Federer, this was a ray of hope. And for those wondering which of Murray or Djokovic was the real deal, the next great champion, this was the day when the answer became obvious.

It isn’t easy to be a tennis player currently. Two of the greatest players of all time seem to have been in the top two ranking places for eternity. One of them is virtually unbeatable on clay, and mighty tough to beat on any surface. The other, an absolute sorcerer with the racket is capable of turning on his magic any time even though past his formidable prime. A victory in a slam had to be earned at times by beating both. Something that only Del Potro had ever accomplished. Murray, for eg, had beaten Nadal twice, only to be destroyed  by Federer.

Under such conditions, if you have been ranked number three behind two legends, like Djoker has been for so long, it is easy to give up. To sit back, and to wallow in self pity for having been unlucky enough to be their contemporaries. With the knowledge that you would be excused for doing the same by an understanding public. Particularly if you have suffered from breathing problems, allergies and a lack of fitness. Which is what Novak Djokovic ought to have done.

Only, he didn’t.

Growing up in Serbia during the Balkan wars, the boy was made of stronger stuff. He had a spirit that had enabled him to survive the war-torn adolescent years in Serbia. It was the mindset of a winner. It was a priceless ability to seize the moment. It was the heart of a champion.

He would fight. And hang on. And improve. And wait for his chance. And when it came, take it just like he had in 2008.

This was the most telling contrast between Murray and Djokovic, even more than the nature of their playing style. Murray, built up as the natural successor to Federer and Nadal, never really came into his own. Djokovic, written off multiple times, never once thought of giving up.

Murray is the one that never arrived.

Djokovic is the one that never went away.

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11 thoughts on “The One That Never Went Away

  1. What a beautiful article….seriously Impressive!!!

    One of the best articles I’ve ever read on Novak & an absolute treat for his fans like me.

    I wud be surprised if Rajkamal isn’t a fan himself.

    Thank you for this piece of beauty!

  2. I believe the same applies to Murray. 2011 AO final was supposed to be a feast for tennis world but instead it turned out to be the most lopsided game I’ve ever seen. 2012 Championships was another story. May be the pressure of playing in his backyard, the pressure of an English man not winning at all english club in a looooong time got him or the way fed came back in the second set got the scott. I cant say for sure which factored in more. But the kid got lion’s heart. He came back didnt he? Not once but twice :) His passive aggressive style makes his game not noticeable. He is like Eli Manning of NFL [New Yorkers say he looks like autistic kid but his 2 rings made them to eat their own words].

  3. Redclaw:

    Rajkamal, posted on the Federer blog, but yeah he is a Federer/Djokovic fan like myself. You should check out his other articles in Cricket Galaxy – one a tribute to Sachin Tendulkar, titled ” A player of heaven and earth”, the other, my personal favorite – on the 2005 Edgbaston Ashes Test.

    We have been total tennis/cricket crazy since IIT Madras days and I can safely say that RajK’s best sports writing will put a lot of tennis/cricket writers to shame. The best part is he is a sports analyst too and will actually analyse numbers and write absolute poetry based on real logical analysis. I am not sure a lot of sports writers fit that billing. Number/words are like oil and water – it takes some serious talent to mix them both without any glitches and I think Rajkamal does that best!

    Great article RajK – I hope your PhD @ Kellogg gives you enough time for you to pen down more articles!

  4. Chandra:

    Good points on Murray. There is no doubt he handled the pressure very well. However, the biggest problem/mistake that Murray/his team need to rectify his passive/defensive style of play. Djokovic is such an aggressive shot-maker and refuses to leave the baseline – a strategy that has worked wonders for Federer, Agassi, and Nalbandian and Davydenko too.

    Murray has grossly underachieved for his “tennis smarts”. I think Murray’s “tennis smarts” are inferior to only Federer and he really has not put them to good use with his passive playing style. 2012 Grass Court season to 2013 grass court season, he was terrific. I really hope he can comeback and continue that good work!

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