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Year of the Djoker

By Vineet Ramakrishnan | Last Updated: Saturday, September 17, 2011 - 19:25
Vineet Ramakrishnan
Across the line

Personally I was not a big supporter of Novak Djokovic in the beginning, neither did I like Rafael Nadal when he burst into the scene in 2005. A common factor for this dislike stemmed out of my total adoration for a certain Roger Federer.

Quite similar was my odium towards Fernando Alonso during 2005, when I had barely started following sports; Michael Schumacher was the ultimate icon and he was untouchable. Alonso just ruined it for me. And when Kimi Räikkönen clinched the title in 2007 by a single point, I was happy that Alonso had lost.

But, in the recently concluded Italian GP, the opening manoeuvre by the Spaniard driver to take the lead going into first turn against the obvious Sebastian Vettel was just phenomenal and then it struck me, he is a driver par excellence and my loathing is completely unjustified from stem to stern.

Watching the US Open semi-finals few days back, Federer leading 40-30 in the decider and serving for the match against Djokovic, I had a good feeling that Roger would take this for sure and that detestation against the Serb was turning into a grim smile.

Djokovic returned the serve with a shaky forehand which managed to stay inside the line; commentators were surprised yet called it a great shot, though, pure luck was my first reaction. Eventually, within 30 seconds I did admit to that shot as being great. He turned to the crowd after that bewildered choice of shot and in a way acknowledged: “I can’t do anything wrong, can I?”

Then again it struck me; twice in two weeks, amidst my abomination and adoration I am missing out on appreciating some quality stuff.

Back to the game, Federer, who once was leading two sets to nil and even in the decider, had the upper hand refused to show any emotions; his mechanical face remained defiant to the antics of the Djoker.

Federer in due course lost the next four games and Djokovic, as has been customary this year, just moved on to another final.

This was the second time in nearly 180 matches that Federer had squandered a two set lead, interestingly both losses have come in the 2011.

Djokovic’s game strictly for statistical purposes looks magnificent so far; John McEnroe has stated that this is the great season in Tennis history and coming that from a legend who himself had an unbelievable 1984 season which read as 84-3, it is definitely an accomplishment.

Way back in 2008, Djokovic was hopeful of making it to the league of Federer and Nadal, but somehow he would always falter at the crucial moment. But come 2011, things have changed and he has clicked at the right time and been persistent.

John McEnroe had stated once late in 2010 that the likes of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray were unable to achieve something really big. But look at things now, within eight months McEnroe comes up with ‘the great season in Tennis history’ comment. Plus, his own season record is very well in jeopardy of being broken.

On the hindsight, Djokovic’s rise to the top has not been very surprising as most of the critics I read suggested. His was the classic case of being on the fringe for couple of years and storming in when the opportunity presented.

By late 2010 and start of 2011, when Nadal was not fully fit and Federer was clearly struggling for form, Djokovic asserted himself.

Earlier Nadal’s rise was very similar to that of Djokovic which saw the former being second best to the then invincible Federer for two years running. He finally found his mark by late 2007 and won the 2008 Wimbledon title, lauded as the greatest game of the Open era.

But Nadal’s ascendancy was believable – because he had injury problems, he participated only in select events and did well in those. And this probably makes Djokovic’s pre-eminence in 2011 all the more incredible and unbelievable.

He did not assert his dominance; rather he owned the order of play for 2011. The final against Rafael Nadal brought out the best possible game of Djokovic. He played all-round tennis. He served better, his returns against one of the best returner in the game was better, he was better at the baseline, he was better up to the nets – he was just better than Rafael Nadal that day.

He had even endured better than the endurance man himself. Djokovic had defeated Nadal at his own game of resilience as he had done with Federer’s game of self-control.

And then again it struck me, what is Djokovic’s own game and why did I have a certain degree of abhorrence? Once again I realised, I was just being a fool.

He put in those relentless forehand shots against Rafa which on many occasions went to rallies of more than 20 shots; he also produced amazing defensive play digging out Federer’s precisely placed shots to hit them deeper to him. He had played just exceptionally well.

He probably camouflaged his game similar to his opponents then with his little bit of cheekiness outplayed them all just enough.

Whatever it may be, it has reaped the rewards, and like a joker, which is a trump in the deck of cards, this Djoker is in all probability the trump card ahead of the Swiss King and the Spanish Matador.

First Published: Saturday, September 17, 2011 - 19:25

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