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Novak Djokovic

Steve Flink: New Book on Djokovic is First Rate

Too many books written on sports figures are filled with trivialities and superficialities. We pour through the pages hoping to be surprised and enlightened, believing that the writer will provide compelling material on the subject, wanting to be taken on a journey into the heart and soul of the individual. Often, however, we are left feeling empty and disappointed by these books because the authors tell us little we did not already know, and much that borders on the obvious and inconsequential. Biographies about renowned people in the world of sports frequently fall well beneath the level of our expectations.

But the gifted French journalist Carole Bouchard has just released a book called "The Quest" about Novak Djokovic, and it is first rate, stylish and entirely readable. Her insights are sharp and far reaching about a player she knows and understands exceedingly well. Bouchard has been around the game regularly for more than a decade. From 2005-2014 she worked as a staff writer for the highly regarded French newspaper L'Equipe. Since then, she has freelanced for many media outlets. In that time, she has established herself as a formidable reporter, respected immensely by her peers, admired widely by those she writes about.

In this account of the Serbian, she focusses largely on Djokovic's "quest" to add the French Open to his career collection of majors in 2016 after being a strong contender for a decade. That Djokovic simultaneously became the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to sweep all four majors in succession only made his Roland Garros breakthrough all the more remarkable. Bouchard skillfully provides the backdrop to Roland Garros and the numerous occasions when Djokovic had been within striking distance of capturing the world's premier clay court crown. He suffered final round losses against Nadal in 2012 and 2014, along with a setback against the Spaniard in the 2013 semifinals when the Serbian was theoretically five points from victory as he served at 4-3, deuce in a gripping fifth set, only to touch the net with his body on an overhead from close range. That cost him the point and may well have led to his demise. Djokovic would have taken on David Ferrer in the final had he halted Nadal, and the title would almost surely have belonged to him.

As Djokovic conveys to Bouchard in the book, "It was a learning curve I think, Roland Garros, for me in every sense. Not only tennis wise but in life as well, how I needed to approach things psychologically. And in the course of the last five years up until 2016, I was very close to winning the title several times. But I just missed that final step and when I looked back and analyzed why that had happened, I thought that a lot had to do with me putting just too much weight on my shoulders. Myself. Because whatever anybody else was doing wasn't in my control. What was in my control was my reaction to that. And my reaction at the time wasn't balanced. I wanted it too much."

Following up on that theme, Bouchard offered her own perspective on Djokovic's difficulties at Roland Garros across the years, on why he had previously not been rewarded with the ultimate clay court prize, on what had held him back ever so narrowly from securing what had often seemed within his grasp. Bouchard writes, "As Djokovic entered Paris' second week [in 2016], he wasn't there just to win a tournament. He was there to have one more tango with all of his French demons. Because it was not just that he had lost at the French Open. It's also about him collapsing there, about him getting so close to the title that he was nearly able to touch it before seeing the trophy and so the dream taken away. It's about all the times that he had chances to go all the way but missed the last hurdle, about all those matches he should have won but lost. It's not about winning or losing, it's about the suffering and the trauma. No other tournament has laid bare the tiny scratch in Novak's confidence, and his self doubts, as much as Roland Garros. No other tournament has hurt him more. No other tournament has made him cry that much."

Bouchard tells the story of Djokovic's all consuming pursuit of the Roland Garros 2016 crown in an enticing way for the reader. Large chunks of the manuscript are devoted to his crucial two day quarterfinal encounter with Roberto Bautista Agut, when they played through rain, making the conditions impossibly heavy, complicating an already arduous task for Djokovic against a daunting opponent. The author builds high drama in and around that match, presents it in parts, writes about other aspects of Djokovic and those around him, and then returns to the Bautista Agut collision later. That presentation is very appealing. She pursues the same strategy when describing the final between Djokovic and Andy Murray, spreading out the narrative, deliberately diverting the reader before returning to her theme.

Djokovic would win the skirmish with Bautista Agut in four tumultuous sets, coming from behind to gain the triumph, surviving an ordeal in the worst possible conditions. Bouchard spoke in depth with Djokovic about that assignment, but, as is the case throughout the book, sought out the observations of his coaches Marian Vajda and Boris Becker, along with other members of the Serbian's team at that time. After a rain delay following the first set, Becker had the chance to speak his mind to his charge, and he did just that. Forcefully.

Becker was infuriated by what he had witnessed early on in that contest, and he did not hold back about how he felt when he spoke with Djokovic. He tells Bouchard, "I remember having one of the most personal speeches to him [Novak]. Really looked him in the eyes, we stood very close, and I really felt that I needed to tell him the complete truth now. And then he looked at me almost shocked, like how dare I speak to him like this. And he knew it came from the right place so he just swallowed it."

Bouchard describes in the book how "the French tournament organization" put out a legends video and they managed to have Djokovic read the words of Andre Agassi, with whom he had much in common. Agassi reached his first Roland Garros final in 1990 but did not win the tournament until nine years later. In that video, Djokovic seemed moved as he read what Agassi had said, including, "Ironically it's almost the first Grand Slam that I should have won.....And then everything came unstuck. I had to wait a long, long time, so much that it ended up being the one big title that I was missing. I think that everything happens for a reason. If I didn't win Roland Garros when I was young, it's because something was missing, and I needed to search inside myself for the answers."

In turn, Bouchard interviewed Darren Cahill about the parallels between Agassi and Djokovic regarding Roland Garros, about the fulfillment of realizing that dream but also a melancholy feeling afterwards. As Cahill tells Bouchard about Agassi's sentiments following his long awaited Paris triumph, "In his words he said while he loved it and it was a great feeling, he felt a little angry because the feeling he got meant so much to him that he was a little bit offended that it did mean that much. Why does it mean this much? Nothing in the world should be that important. But it was. For Novak I'm sure he went through the same thing. I'm sure he spent every day and every night, every time he stepped onto the court, thinking of that moment of finally winning the French Open.... For Novak to finally accomplish it, one can only guess how much goodness it brought to his life, but I think it's also part of the reason why we saw a little bit of a letdown for the rest of the year because it did mean so much."

The book covers a vast amount of ground. Bouchard weaves some fascinating material around the fringes of the central narrative. That enables her to paint a fuller picture of Djokovic and the man's many facets. She branches out into a number of areas, including his early years and upbringing as a boy. That shaped him in countless ways. As Djokovic is quoted by Bouchard, "It's something written in my DNA code a little bit, because of the culture of the Serb and Balkan areas, considering the history and what we've been through. People in the region developed a kind of character feature, and also an existential need for battle. And then obviously the circumstances that I had in my childhood...they did help me, when I look back now, to get tougher and to know what I want and to appreciate what I have. This kind of past made me hungrier for everything, including success."

Bouchard drew mainly on her own resources and one on one interviews for the book, but also gathered significant material from other sources, including a revealing comment made by the Serbian to the Herald Sun just prior to Roland Garros in 2016. Djokovic said reflectively, "I just couldn't break into that No. 1 or No. 2 spot—Federer and Nadal were just too dominant, winning all of the Grand Slams. I was there and consistent but I just couldn't challenge them. I hit rock bottom mentally and I thought about stopping tennis—that's how far it went. I was just so consumed by the pressure, stress, expectations, speculations and so forth. I expected too much from myself and I didn't meet the expectations. I wanted to reach my lifetime goals of winning Wimbledon and being No. 1 in the world, and I wasn't managing to get there, and I didn't think I was close."

When Bouchard addresses the final round confrontation between Djokovic and Murray and analyzes the similarities and differences between two accomplished men born one week apart in the spring of 1987, she makes some excellent observations. Bouchard writes of Murray, "Surely he must have wondered sometimes why his records were so far away from Novak's despite both of them as being basically two sides of the same coin. How was he to avoid wondering about that?...The tennis world was comparing them all the time. The most common explanations were that Novak was on court more naturally aggressive and could play a bit faster than Andy, who tended to defend too much; that of the two, Novak's fighting spirit and cold blood in the big matches was superior, as was his endurance; that the Serbian hadn't been derailed in his progress by the internal battles and public tantrums that had sometimes slowed down the Scot. Others would simply say that Djokovic had simply become a better player than Murray, polishing his side of the coin until it'd be the brightest, turning himself into a GOAT candidate. Some would add that Andy's ego and ambitions weren't maybe as sky high as Novak's."

Discussing the atmospherics and the capacity crowd gathered for the Djokovic-Murray encounter, Bouchard writes, "Novak was playing at home, to the big surprise of the Murray fans who were still trying to make themselves heard in the stadium.... Some colleagues were stunned, borderline confused, as to why that centre court had turned into a Djokovic fan zone. Not even in Melbourne, where he had won six titles, nor in Beijing and Shanghai where he was an absolute icon, would the stadium give Novak such unconditional support. So what were the French up to again? There's a narrative saying Djokovic is always facing hostile crowds, that he's the unloved one, and that even when he's not, his 'love meter' can't ever reach that of Nadal's or Federer's. That for some reason people are always going to side for his opponents. A position they take so much as a truth that they would ask him regularly how it feels to always be the one-no-one-wants-to-see-winning. I never saw Novak blinking at those questions."

Bouchard has seen Djokovic in virtually every type of situation. She witnessed his every move during his "quest" to become the first man in 47 years to collect four major titles in a row but, more significantly in his own mind, to attain a first ever championship at Roland Garros. Bouchard powerfully described the mounting pressure on Djokovic as he tried to close out the Murray account. Having dropped the first set before bursting into brilliance and capturing the next two sets, Djokovic soared to 5-2 in the fourth with a two service break cushion. Ultimately, of course, he would prevail 6-4 in that fourth set, but not before suffering from the inevitable anxiety of being so close to realizing a lifelong goal.

Bouchard writes of that critical stage of the battle, "Novak.... was not smiling anymore, was just trying not to think. Scars were burning his skin, heart beating louder and louder, mind doing its best not to go on the dark side, not to let the demons take over."

Djokovic explained to Bouchard in an exclusive interview this past January, "Double break, up 5-2, serving for the championship.... And I allowed it to again play with my mind. This is the thing: it doesn't matter how many matches you've played in your life nor how many hours you've spent training yourself and working to be the best version of yourself. You're still a human being. It's hard to exclude all of the influences. I was up 5-2 and telling myself, 'ok, focus on each point, one point at a time,' but hey, you are four points away from winning the title you so greatly want to win. Those were the kind of circumstances I was in."

Those are all valid points made by Djokovic. We take for granted that a champion will finish off a big match in style and not reveal any vulnerability when it counts. Djokovic has always been a fellow who wears his heart on his sleeve. He is more demonstrative than either Federer or Nadal, prone to understandable outbursts periodically, likely to get himself into trouble from time to time.

Bouchard writes, "Of course Djokovic can break rackets, yell at his box, send umpires and crowds or rip shirts out of pure rage. He can also complain when ball kids don't bring that damned towel fast enough on a day where he hasn't gotten up on the right foot. He can sit at the press conference desk and make you feel that it's not even worth trying to get something out of him today. And he can strike back. But most of the time you also see him entertaining the crowd at the next matches, being super fair while playing (how many points is he giving back each season?) or being a gentleman on other occasions. So why would you call him out for putting on an act? The real issue is that in this case you've missed the point and the in between: you can rip shirts and be a good person, you can have occasional flashes or anger and remain an overall well educated and balanced human being, you can go from a bad day to put on your best behavior the next day without lacking sincerity."

The view here is that Bouchard sizes up Djokovic remarkably in terms of character and competitiveness, so it is unsurprising that she summed up his Roland Garros 2016 triumph with supreme clarity. She writes, "Djokovic put all of his focus, spirit, physical abilities into winning the 2016 French Open. Not for two weeks but for a year. And it came after ten years of chase.....Roland Garros had been the one shaking him even deeper than he thought possible through his whole career, and finally winning it wouldn't change this..... Conquering the Holy Grail would come at a cost. One that was also lingering in Djokovic's own spirit as he was no robot, as he never did anything without a higher purpose. He'd be left, after Paris' celebrations, suddenly waking up and thinking: but what's next? Like entering Greatness Land but discovering that to start climbing there, too, he'd need to open up his own Pandora's Box."

Fittingly, Bouchard spends time and devotes some space analyzing why Djokovic did trail off so sweepingly after Roland Garros 2016. He lost in the third round of Wimbledon last year to Sam Querrey, got to the final of the U.S. Open but lost to Stan Wawrinka, bowed out in the second round of the Australian Open this year, and departed tamely against Dominic Thiem in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros this time around.

The purpose of the Bouchard book was not to write about his recent slump but to celebrate an astonishing achievement realized a year ago. She writes lucidly near the end of her book, "Novak Djokovic found excellence by running after perfection, so there's a good chance he could find many more Grand Slam titles by chasing Greatness. I remember Toni Nadal telling me in Beijing in 2015 that even if these champions refused to admit it after winning so much, the only thing that they can accept is to continue winning. Djokovic, being the competitor that he is and with the mindset that's been described through this book, can't get away from the fact that he's within reach of the sky now. Chasing the GOAT title may be the only thing left for him in the game."

It is a book well written by a reporter who knows her field comprehensively. I read it with pleasure, and urge you to add it to your library.

Read more articles by Steve Flink

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