In most cases, players who earn their status among the elite are those who know they belong. When Novak Djokovic captured his first major at the 2008 Australian Open, he had set the stage for that triumph with an excellent 2007 season. In that campaign, he had made it to the semifinals of the French Open and Wimbledon, and then reached the final of the U.S. Open. Securing the Australian Open crown at the start of the next year was a logical progression for a player who clearly had the talent and the temerity to perform capably and confidently on the biggest stages of the sport.
Djokovic had his problems for the rest of 2008, but he did manage to reach the semifinals of the French and U.S. Opens, and he garnered the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup title in Shanghai to conclude a terrific season. To be sure, he had his share of lackluster afternoons and mediocre evenings, and sometimes did not live up to his considerable potential. Nonetheless, he had a season to be proud of, and a chance to follow up honorably on the platform he created for himself as a great tennis player. He had every reason to come into 2009 ready to make a strong run at another major, willing to push himself to the hilt in pursuit of that goal, and able to give himself the best possible chance to make good on his pursuits.
And yet, despite an inspired and productive stretch this past spring, Djokovic has not been the player he could have been this year, and that point is demonstrated irrefutably by how he has fared at the three majors. When he went back to Melbourne to defend his Australian Open title, Djokovic went to the quarterfinals. He won a terrific opening set against Andy Roddick but lost the next two sets and went down a break in the fourth set. At that stage, overcome by the extreme heat on the hard courts, he retired, handing Roddick the match.
Djokovic caught a lot of grief for that decision. He then regrouped over the winter and won Dubai. That was an indication that he was adjusting to the new racket he had started using in Australia. Djokovic struggled some more after that, but then went on a spree. He was a finalist in Miami. He was runner-up to Rafael Nadal in both Monte Carlo and Rome on the clay, and he won Belgrade. He then played a whale of a match against Nadal in Madrid, which he lost in a four hour marathon only because Nadal played two stupendous points in the final set tie-break when he was match points down.
Surely Novak Djokovic was well prepared for the French Open, confident and secure, eager and optimistic. But he played a flat and fundamentally bad match in the third round at Roland Garros against Philipp Kohlschreiber, and lost in straight sets. I cut him some slack for that defeat. My feeling was that he had perhaps played too much across the clay court circuit, and had left too much of his best tennis behind him in the process. But he left Paris, went to Halle for the grass court event, and managed to reach the final before losing to Tommy Haas. I was mildly encouraged by that development; Djokovic had, after all, given himself some decent grass court preparation for Wimbledon. I figured that could only be good news for the 22-year-old Serbian.
But Djokovic started Wimbledon inauspiciously. He was a basket case for much of his opening round match against Julien Benneteau, escaping in four sets after falling behind. But then he seemed to find the range, and his level against Mardy Fish and Dudi Sela was vastly improved. I liked his chances against Tommy Haas as he approached their quarterfinal contest. It seemed likely that Djokovic had learned something significant from his loss to the 31-year-old German in Halle, and he would probably turn things around if he could his finest brand of tennis.
Unfortunately, Djokovic did nothing of the kind. Haas set the tactical agenda from the start, holding his own from the back of the court with his rival, attacking effectively whenever he could, punching his volleys with control, depth and finality. To be sure, Haas— who had won a brilliantly contested match in five sets over Marin Cilic— was a deserving victor against Djokovic and he demonstrated once more that he is among the most complete players in tennis. Haas looked entirely comfortable on the grass, and undaunted by facing the No. 4 seed in Djokovic.
But Djokovic was essentially horrendous. He lost a tight opening set 7-5 and then played a very nervous game on his serve at 5-5 in the second set. Haas broke him, but Djokovic broke right back as Haas double faulted his way into a 0-40 corner and did not recover. In the ensuing tie-break, Djokovic reached triple set point with Haas serving at 3-6. Haas managed to squirm out of that corner and won both of his service points, but Djokovic should have closed it out at 6-5 on his own delivery. Instead, he guided ball after ball back until Haas caught him off guard with a backhand down the line. At 6-6, Djokovic had an absolute sitter on the forehand, but drove the ball long. Haas closed out the set on a run of five straight points to build a two set lead.
Djokovic did managed to win the third set, but once he lost his serve to trail 3-1 in the fourth, it was apparent that he was not going to recover his spirit. Haas was victorious 7-5, 7-6 (6), 4-6, 6-3. And for the third time in a row this year, Djokovic had failed to deliver on the promise of his status as a top four player. Losing in the quarters is no disgrace, but Djokovic needed to at least give himself a shot at playing Roger Federer in the semifinals. Plainly, Federer would have been the big favorite to win on the grass, but Djokovic at least would have had the opportunity to go for broke, to relax and take some chances, to see if he could record a third straight victory over his old rival.
Instead, Djokovic finds himself trying to justify yet another setback at a Grand Slam event. As he said today, “Im obviously disappointed that I didnt win. I think Ive played okay throughout the tournament, and unfortunately I havent performed well today. I was solid on my service game but then when I needed to step it up at the most important games, I was too nervous in these moments.
That sums it up well. I was baffled that he did not go for a lot more aggression off the ground to break down Haas. He was so inhibited and passive that there was no way he could survive against a player he should be able to beat. He was asked if, as a former Grand Slam tournament champion, he felt nervous in major quarterfinals. Djokovic responded, Well, I mean, you always feel a little bit nervous now. Its up to you if you are able to put that aside and just try to think positively. I dont know. I just couldnt relax at those moments, especially 5-5 in the first two sets. I was playing very defensively and making some unforced errors that I didnt do throughout the match.
In other words, Djokovic knows he is getting in his own way at crucial moments in big matches. As he concluded, I could have won the second set and I just made some incredible unforced errors. It just turns around. Youre two sets down. If youre playing quarterfinals against as good a player as Tommy Haas, your times passes by. I think I was well prepared for grass courts and physically and mentally I was motivated. I wanted to do better at Wimbledon. Quarterfinals is good result. But I still think I can do better.
I wish Djokovic could take note of how well the other leading players compete, because too often he is surpassed by his rivals in that critical area. He puts too much pressure on himself and then becomes a different and far less daunting player. On this same day that Djokovic lost a match to Tommy Haas that he was more than capable of winning, Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt battled gamely and ferociously for three hours and 50 minutes before Roddick came through in five sets. Here was the 2002 champion and a former world No. 1 facing the 2004-2005 finalist who also once resided at the top of the rankings. Hewitt and Roddick gave it their all. Roddick pulled out the match in five tumultuous sets, but Hewitt had little to regret when it was over since he had been such a gallant and unbending loser.
The hope here is that Novak Djokovic will remember that until and unless he can sort out his priorities and bring out his best at the majors, then he is going to remain an unfulfilled player who knows he is so much better than he is showing any of us.
Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to tennischannel.com
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