Novak: ‘You Battle Yourself The Most’
World No. 1 accentuates the positive in life atop Emirates ATP Rankings
When you’ve gone from hunter to hunted, as Novak Djokovic has since getting his first intoxicating taste of No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings back in July 2011, you learn to deal with pressure in ways you never imagined.
Not everyone is built for it over the long haul.
Chile’s Marcelo Rios spent six weeks at No. 1 in 1998. Spain’s Carlos Moya, who recently joined Milos Raonic's coaching team, lasted two weeks in ‘99; countryman Juan Carlos Ferrero eight in ‘03. Of course, most players never even get a sniff at No. 1. But Djokovic, now in his 183rd week atop the charts, has shown that he is indeed up for the task. As he’s said, the more he achieves in this sport, the more the expectations, the pressures — both from himself and from others — mount. In his words, they come “in big portions.” But whether it was his upbringing amid war and uncertainty; marriage, fatherhood or just the natural maturity that comes at 28 after years of globetrotting as a touring pro, the Serb has found a way to deal with all that lay before him.
Video courtesy AusOpen.com
“I think Djokovic is certainly mature and conditioned to all the pressures that are in tennis today,” Hall of Famer Rod Laver told ATPWorldTour.com. “And there’s a lot more pressure today than when I was playing.”
Much attention is paid to Djokovic’s record against his chief rivals. Following Thursday night’s 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 defeat of Roger Federer in the Australian Open semis, he has the upper hand against the Swiss at 23-22 in FedEx ATP Head2Heads. He’s 24-23 against Rafael Nadal, his dominant 6-1, 6-2 victory over the Spaniard in the Doha final coming “as close to perfection as it can get.” He's 21-9 against Andy Murray; 19-4 against Stan Wawrinka. But it’s his performance against a more ethereal opponent that may matter the most.
“At the end of the day, you’re battling yourself the most,” Djokovic asserted. “There are so many players out there that are hitting the ball well. Whether or not you're able to cope with the pressure in these particular moments, fighting against some of the best players in the world for the major trophies, there's a lot at stake. Emotions are going up and down. It's important to keep it together. You go throughout the match, and even before the match, through different thought processes. Even though sometimes it seems unnatural, you need to keep pushing yourself to be on the positive side.”
A prime example of that positive thinking is the way he stayed in the moment against Federer in last summer’s US Open final. It sure sounded as if all 24,000 Ashe Stadium ticketholders were pulling for his ever-popular opponent, but Djokovic kept his composure en route to a 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 triumph.
“I try not to focus on that,” he said. “I feel like I'm enjoying lots of support around the world. When I play Roger, it's something that is expected in a way considering his career and his greatness on and off the court, what he has done for the sport. He's loved. He's appreciated. He's respected around the world. For me, it's normal in a way. I'm trying to enjoy my time, to do the best that I can with the tennis racquet, but also focus on the positive energy rather than negative, rather than getting frustrated for that. There's no reason.”
Djokovic admittedly has had an up-and-down run to the 2016 final in Melbourne, where he’s shooting for his sixth title in nine years. He didn’t drop a set through three rounds, then committed an uncharacteristic 100 unforced errors in clawing his way past France’s Gilles Simon in five sets 6-3, 6-7(1), 6-4, 4-6, 6-3. He was hardly at his best in dismissing Kei Nishikori in the quarters. But he clearly found his form against Federer, especially in the first two sets, which he wrapped up in a mere 54 minutes.
“I've had matches where I've played similar tennis,” he said. “But I think against Roger, these first two sets have been probably the best two sets I've played against him overall I think throughout my career. I've had some moments against him in sets where I've played on a high level, but this was a different level than from before.”
“Psychologically, I did not allow myself to have big oscillations,” he added. “Your best changes day to day. It's not always possible to play this way. You strive to be the best you can be. When you're playing one of your top rivals, somebody of Roger's resume, of course it requires a lot of focus, determination, and a different preparation for that matchup than most of the other matches. So that's why I came out with a great deal of self-belief and confidence and intensity, concentration. I mean, I played flawless tennis for first two sets, no doubt about it.”
Can the 10-time Grand Slam champion maintain this dominance in the years to come?
“It's hard to say what the future brings,” Djokovic said on Thursday. “Obviously, tennis is different from what it was when I was coming up 10 years ago. It's more difficult for young players to break through and actually challenge the best players in the world. It's more physical nowadays and more demanding from each and every aspect.
“There are cases and players like Boris Becker and [Michael] Chang, who were 16-, 17-, 18-year-old Grand Slam winners. It's hard to say if we're going to have that or not in the future. It just really depends. The future is not in our hands. It's expected to see new faces, a new generation of players, guys like [Nick] Kyrgios, [Alexander] Zverev. Those are players who are showing some big game, big tennis, and they are able quality-wise to challenge the top players. But to sustain that level and throughout the year to be actually consistent requires a lot more than just a good game. I'm going to try to stay here as long as possible. That's from my perspective what I can influence, what I can do. Whether or not I'm going to be dominant in the years to come, I don't know. I cannot give you an answer on that. I can try to do my best to try to keep playing on this level.”