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Playing Without Fear

DEUCE

Djokovic© Getty ImagesLarger than life: Novak Djokovic becomes the first player since Roger Federer from 2004-07 to finish as the year-end World No. 1 in consecutive seasons.

Novak Djokovic will be the year-end World No. 1 for the second successive season. As Mike Dickson of The Daily Mail writes, the Serbian is capable of playing tennis without a moment’s self-doubt.  

For the second year in a row, Novak Djokovic will finish the season at the top of the tennis tree, as the World No. 1. And, Roger Federer aside, Djokovic is the only player in this field who knows how it feels to win the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, having scored the title in Shanghai four years ago. During his time in the sport’s elite, two things – one mental and one physical – have come to define Djokovic. When fully engaged he is an incredible battler who plays without fear, and then there is his astonishing athleticism, which has led some experienced judges to describe him as the best mover they have ever seen on his favourite hard courts.

So when Andy Murray began the third set of September’s US Open final, he knew better than anyone that there was still much to do. Ranged against him was someone he had been up against from the age of 12, and it had become deeply ingrained in Murray that his old adversary was not going to surrender his Flushing Meadows title without mounting a fierce rearguard action. We know now that Murray was right. Typically, Djokovic fired back for two sets and it took a monumental effort to suppress a player born one week apart from the British No. 1.

“When fully engaged he is an incredible battler who plays without fear”

Djokovic’s all-round game – his return of serve is perhaps the single most improved shot in tennis of the past two years – has amounted to a package that has proved irresistible to the extent that he had bagged five Grand Slams before Murray – who possesses at least as much talent – got his hands on his first. In fact, when the Scot beat him in September he became the first man to do so in 28 matches at hard-court Grand Slams, the US and Australian Opens.

It has been quite a journey for the fervently patriotic, extrovert Serb who has done his best to counteract some of the more negative images of his country. Djokovic grew up in a ski resort in the south of the country around the borders of the disputed territory of Kosovo. There is snow on the ground there for half the year, but he had two doses of good fortune that pointed him on the unlikely path towards tennis. Firstly there were three outdoor tennis courts built outside the pizza parlour and creperie run by his parents, and then a luxury hotel was built that had an indoor sports hall attached, in which the sport could be played through the winter months.

It has involved much hard work on his part – including moving away to Munich at the age of 12 – and much sacrifice on the part of his family. The result has been that mighty determined character, which saw him break through to take the 2008 Australian Open but then struggle to quite back it up until three years later in Melbourne.

DjokovicWhat should not be forgotten is that Djokovic, like Murray, has had to deal with the roadblock formed by Rafael Nadal and Federer and it may go down as the greatest achievement of his career that he was the first who managed to break it down.

When Djokovic reached the final in Australia at the start of last year and brushed aside Murray nobody could have forecast that it would become the greatest start to a season since John McEnroe’s in 1984, with the Serb taking on an air of invincibility.

He won 41 consecutive matches in 2011 before Federer finally brought him down in the semi-finals of the French Open, and carried that form all the way through to the US Open, which became his third major title of the year and left him with a staggering 64-2 record for the season at the time. He would finish the year with a 70-6 record, and at the top of the South African Airways ATP Rankings. Now he has finished another year as the World No 1, his reward for winning the Australian Open, finishing as the runner-up at Roland Garros and the US Open, and his three ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles, in Miami, Toronto and Shanghai, as well as winning a tournament in Beijing. A magnetic personality, talented mimic and articulate spokesman for the game, Djokovic has the chance to end his season in style in London. 

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