James Lawton: Deft Djokovic flies high on the conviction his time has come
Yes, he was enjoying his life, his tennis, in a way that could not be entirely explained by a developing relationship with a squirrel in his garden
Friday 24 June 2011
It was always a tenuous theory that Novak Djokovic might attempt to creep under the Wimbledon radar. How, after all, do you do this with a game again filled with all the life, all the edge, that made him the tennis player of ultimate momentum before Roger Federer ambushed him on the red clay of Paris last month?
Yesterday, on the green grass of Court One, the idea of victory through stealth survived barely an hour of extraordinarily brilliant action.
The eruption came early in the second set of the three which saw him at times not only come close to dismembering his giant South African opponent Kevin Anderson but also announce a state of mind so exuberant, so hungry for new glory, that no one, not Federer, not the overwhelming favourite Rafael Nadal, and certainly not Andy Murray, could begin to ignore it.
Djokovic repelled three crashing attempted winners from Anderson before beating him with a return of stunning power and placement. The crowd observed a millisecond of silence, then shrieked. Djokovic? He simply flew into the air, suspended, literally, by the force of his belief that his greatest triumph – a Wimbledon title to add to his two Australian Opens – may now be just over a week away.
After a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 win compressed into one hour, 54 minutes frequently punctuated by signs of Djokovic's psychological rehabilitation from the loss of his record-breaking winning streak at Federer's hand, the 24-year-old Serb was happy enough to discuss his sense of well-being.
Yes, he was enjoying his life, his tennis, in a way that could not be entirely explained by his developing, and much tweeted, relationship with a squirrel in the garden of his rented house.
"Mentally, I do have a different approach to Wimbledon than before. It's obviously got something to do with the winning streak I had, it has made my confidence extremely high.
"It makes it so much easier to step on to the court because you believe in yourself. You know that you're one of the best players in the world and that you can win against anybody. So this is my mindset. I try to step on the court and really, regardless of who is across the net, play as best as I can. I believe I have matured – I have five or six years behind me now, and this is quite a lot – especially when you can believe you have learnt something from these years."
That Anderson should dwindle so swiftly in such company was no great surprise. At a spindly 6ft 8in the man from Johannesburg is ranked 36th in the world and has won just one Tour title. There were indeed times when Djokovic brought his opponent to the the bleakest of bewilderment, but then there were aspects of his game guaranteed to disquiet and undermine any rival.
Certainly, the great Nadal has plenty of reasons to brood over the latest evidence of the Serb's restored facility.
Four times this season Nadal has been beaten by Djokovic in finals – in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Rome and yesterday there was little effort by the Serb to downplay the value of such an edge. He was also invited to offer fresh tribute to his recent conqueror, Federer, and he was prepared to do this – but only to a limited extent.
"Well," said Djokovic, "he has perfected his movement on the court really well. He knows how to rationally spend energy. He's just an overall great player, physically, mentally. Yeah, it is on the grass where he plays his best tennis and now he is definitely challenged, from Nadal and some other players, including myself, for the major titles."
For Djokovic, though, there is only so much time to pay dues to the great achievements of other players. If Federer is an icon, Nadal almost a force of nature, and Murray a potential threat – albeit one he put down mercilessly in the final of the Australian Open in January – they all to have fight their own battles for self-belief.
It seems it may just be the time when Djokovic expresses himself on the court with unprecedented freedom. "Well I don't really think about others," he said, "I think about myself, what I do, how I can improve myself on the court. And it's true that I like to express myself more positively than negatively, but some times it is negative as well. We are all different, but we all face the same problem. It is the pressure. It is always there, and it will create negative pressure if you let it.
"What I understand now is that certain things will always be part of your life if you are a top player. Everything depends on how you get on with it. There is never a moment when you can forget that everything has to be cleared away so that you can do what you have to do in the place that matters most – the court."
Yesterday the new model Djokovic, he suggested, was showing a few new performance traits, including an ability to respond to the demands of slower grass. Returning serve had become increasingly important and he was most happy with this aspect of the dismantling of Anderson.
"I cannot ask for more than two straight-set wins in the opening rounds. I'm returning really well, which is so vital now. It is to use more efficiency and precision rather than just going for the speed."
But then on Court One yesterday there was something that went rather deeper than the mere nuances of technique. Some of Djokovic's shots were nothing less than sensational – one return could hardly have startled and unnerved Anderson more deeply had it been fired from a gun. Most compelling of all, though, was the image of a man who plainly believes that the time has come when he goes beyond the limits of men like Nadal, Federer and Murray.
It is a conviction only enhanced by the sight of his flying jubilantly into the air.
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