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You don’t need to be the good guy Novak!
“I am not what I think I am. I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.” This mesmerising quote by Thomas Cooley is relevant for all of us in the modern world, but it perhaps personifies how Novak Djokovic has seen himself throughout his storied career. A supreme talent who worked extremely hard to reach the pinnacle of his profession. However, through this journey, there is a sense that he never received the credit for his success and the combination of skill and humility he shows time and again. Never was this more apparent when he achieved something that no one had for almost 50 years, by winning four consecutive majors. There were articles in the news on that Sunday, but as soon as Monday came around, it was already time to move on for every journalist. Ever since that moment, Djokovic’s career has seen a low that no one expected. Injury and mental disintegration have been characteristic of his last two years on tour. Despite those trials and tribulations, his performance in the semi-final of Rome against Rafael Nadal was very encouraging for the #NoleFam. How can he now translate this to regain his mojo on the biggest stage?
The battle against the “King Of Clay” last Saturday brought back memories of two years ago. The scene was in Rome again but just a round earlier between these two players. The roles were reversed, with Djokovic being the peerless number one and Nadal looking to rekindle his Midas touch after a difficult 2015. However, the issue for the Serb has not been form in terms of his game and technique on his shots. Like with so many players at the top level when they go through a struggle, it is the mind that plays mischief. At his peak, the clarity of thought in his game plan was something to marvel at. With his game now, even when not playing against the creme de la creme of player, he can get muddled in thought about what shot to play next. This can be closely linked to his coaching situation last year. After sacking his entire staff, he reached out to the love guru Pepe Imaz, in desperate need of some inspiration. When this did not work, he went to a fellow tennis legend in the form of Andre Agassi to help him rediscover his glory days. Adding Radek Stepanek was thought of as an excellent move by the tennis faithful, but he parted company with them not long after hiring them. He is now back with his most influential coach, Marian Vajda. The signs have already been positive in the last few weeks, and there is the hope that a 13th Grand Slam crown may not be far away.
Due to him never receiving the love and affection afforded to his greatest rivals Nadal and a certain Roger Federer, there is a sense that Djokovic tries too hard to please the crowd. There is a concerted effort to get the crowd on his side in his matches, as if he wants to prove something to them and say I am also a legend of the game. Despite the good intentions he has on the court of applauding a brilliant shot from his opponent or smiling in the face of adversity, Djokovic does not need to do this. In possibly his greatest Grand Slam final triumph, he fought the adversity facing him with a fierce determination and sheer brilliance in his focus. The vociferous New York crowd willed Federer to pull through the 2015 US Open final, but the “Djoker” had the last laugh. As Federer’s forehand return went long, Djokovic looked to his camp in surprise, with a finger pointed to his chest. He was seldom in danger of losing that match, but he must have been immensely proud that he won under those circumstances. He needs to bring that fierceness back if he is to end up as the last man standing on the biggest stage. Again, the signs are encouraging, as he has shown this emotion and cared less and less about the crowd’s impression of him. Forget what we think Novak, you focus on the game and people will love you in time.
When newly appointed as coach, Agassi said in an interview with Mats Wilander that tennis needs Djokovic at the top of his game. Unfortunately since 2016, the world has not been treated to that sight. There have been false dawns, like Rome last year but this feels different. The menace is back and I can say with more confidence than I ever have that Novak Djokovic will win another major.