Sports Writer of the Year, at Wimbledon
James Lawton: Djokovic's ugly episode down to beauty of Nadal and Federer
Nadal and Federer have again almost surreally set themselves apart from the rest of the field
Monday 27 June 2011
If he hadn't already earned $26m in prize-money alone, there might be a case for a whip-round to cover Novak Djokovic's impending fine for turning racket abuse into a violent art form worthy of Quentin Tarantino.
No, it wasn't a pretty sight. It made an Andy Murray outburst seem like something you might encounter in a sweet shop.
John McEnroe surely never exceeded its intensity, at least not physically, and Tim Henman thought it warranted a penalty of "thousands of pounds", which some might have thought a bit rich from someone who once nailed a ballgirl with a 92mph shot fired in a burst of pique.
But then did anyone over the first week of Wimbledon begin to provide such a graphic picture of the pressure, even for the most talented of the challengers, provoked by champion Rafa Nadal and sleekly time-travelling Roger Federer?
Nadal and Federer are the men who have again almost surreally set themselves apart from the rest of the field.
If you doubted this you needed to see the brilliant Djokovic repeatedly smash his racket into the Centre Court baseline. On the face of it he was reacting to missing the killer shot at the end of a superb rally with his feisty, skilled and crowd-pleasing opponent Marcos Baghdatis.
In reality – he confirmed quickly enough – the problem was not one errant shot but the appalling sense that he was losing his grip in the mere foothills of a tournament that has already shown the potential to be one of the greatest ever played.
You scent a whiff of overstatement here? You cannot then have seen much of the progress of Nadal and Federer to today's round of 16 – or considered why the superbly gifted No 2 ranked Djokovic went quite so ballistic over one mislaid shot.
The fact is, the problem for Djokovic is the same one facing Andy Murray, who became distinctly frayed at critical points in his Friday night defeat of the dangerous veteran Ivan Ljubicic.
As they face increasingly dangerous opposition – Murray against the swashbuckling musketeer Richard Gasquet, Djokovic against another classy Frenchman, the left-hander Michael Llodra – they cannot push away the prospects of Nadal and Federer standing on the other side of the net or, to put it another way, on top of the mountain.
Djokovic, previously preening himself over the easy touch that gave him two straight-set victories in the opening rounds, has now dropped one set. Murray has lost two. Nadal and Federer have scarcely shed a drop of sweat – and certainly not through anxiety. Indeed, it seemed on Saturday that had they felt any less pressure they might well have been last seen floating over Wimbledon Common.
Federer put in his third exquisite stint while dispatching the still charming but basically eroded game of former finalist David Nalbandian, winning 6-4, 6-2, 6-4, and confirming that he felt much better than he did last year. But it was from Nadal that we saw perhaps the ultimate example of a champion's instinct.
For two long sets spread over Friday night and Saturday, he probed for the solution to the relentless serve of Luxembourg's Gilles Müller and then, when he found it after winning two tie-breaks, proceeded to sweep the third set 6-0. As surgery goes, this would probably have earned the thumbs up at Guy's or Johns Hopkins.
"You know," said Nadal, "you can decide a set in two balls. In the third set I had less pressure and began to return unbelievably and play at a very high level." He said that he would need such a standard of performance today to repel the former US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro, who at 22 is nearing complete recovery from serious injury: "In my opinion he is normally top five level and I'm not lucky to play him in the round of 16." Nor can it be said that Del Potro has exactly come up with a sure-fire winning lottery ticket.
He shares along with Mikhail Youzhny, who faces Federer, just one advantage. Neither has anything to lose but the improbable notion that they have a serious chance against master players in such consummately brilliant form.
For Djokovic and Murray, the challenge is to present themselves as credible members of such an elite club, which is something you might not have quite grasped listening to some of the latter's more optimistic statements in the past few days. Murray declares that he is ready to claim the peak of the game, which is more a statement about an attempted mindset than the undoubted quality of his game.
But then how did he come by such a sanguine mood while Djokovic, his merciless conqueror in the Australian Open final in January, a double Grand Slam winner and the author of four tournament victories over Nadal this year, had to fight his way out of such a bad place on Saturday evening. Baghdatis shamelessly milked a crowd frequently besotted and made silly by underdogs, but there was no question that his bold play deeply unsettled the misfiring Serb.
Certainly, there was no attempt by Djokovic to obscure the degree of his crisis when he so ferociously wrecked his racket. Did he do with the first swipe or one of those that followed so swiftly? "I like to make sure," he said with a smile so distant that it might have risen in his native Belgrade. "I was moving really bad. I didn't feel good on the court. It's obvious I won because I was hanging in there and fighting. My legs weren't working. I'm not tired physically, you have these days.
"It was also frustrating because it was incredible to see practically everybody in the stadium up on their feet. I had to appreciate that as a player and be happy to be part of an exciting match, but I know it's going to get tougher all the time.
"There's no doubt I was very frustrated. I cannot lie. I was missing from the baseline after making chances for myself and that always makes me very frustrated. The important thing is that however bad it seemed I stayed emotionally stable, believing that I could win and, always, that is what matters most. Sometimes it is good to express yourself, however it comes, even though it doesn't look great."
One thing had to be believed, he said. There will be no sanitising of a sometimes unruly spirit before today's collision with the guileful, 31-year-old, left-handed serve-and-volleyer Llodra, who modelled himself on his hero Stefan Edberg while growing up the son of a Paris St-Germain footballer, Michel.
"He can make it tough but I will be the same as I always am, determined to find a way to win," said Djokovic. "I'm not going to change who I am.I can work on certain things but my temper is my temper, my character is my character. You know, you have to try to get the best out of it, not change."
No one would surely want that. True, he didn't commend himself to the elders of the All England club. He didn't find a vein of form that can so often crackle like a charge of electricity. But he does remain the most potent threat to the Gang of Two, which right now means that you can weigh his value only in gold, give or take the odd impurity.
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