Throughout his difficulties over the last year I’ve always maintained this about Novak Djokovic: his struggles have never had anything to do with any faults in his technique. Whatever problems he has had, they have been more to do with what’s been going on inside his head.
Watching the way Djokovic beat Adam Pavlasek 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 in the second round here underlined that belief. Holy cow, the guy’s tennis was as perfect as a Michelangelo painting. Serves, returns, ground strokes, volleys, movement – everything was in peak working order.
I know it’s early days at this Wimbledon, but it was a performance that reminded me of how Novak played when he was winning just about every tournament he entered. That run ended after last year’s French Open, where he had become the first man for 47 years to hold all four Grand Slam titles.
His decline in the last 13 months has been spectacular but when I saw him in Rome a couple of months ago I told him: “Novak, you’ve got it all, man. You were the best and you still are the best. Don’t change anything. Know you’re a winner – and go out and prove it again.”
When Novak was at his peak I always felt that he was the best all-round player in the history of our sport. Holy smoke, he had absolutely no weaknesses. Are those days back again? We will know soon enough when he faces some tougher opposition, but for the moment the signs are good.
The strongest indication that he is on the way back is the smile that is back on his face. He appears to be enjoying himself again. It’s a simple fact that if your mental state isn’t right you won’t be able to perform at a maximum level on the court.
Friday’s match of the day
I know many of you Brits will be focusing on Andy Murray’s match against Fabio Fognini, but I’m just as intrigued by Heather Watson’s meeting with Victoria Azarenka. I have a personal interest here, of course, as Heather has been based at the IMG Academy since she was 12.
Heather’s situation at the moment is not dissimilar to Novak’s. She has dropped out of the world’s top 100 after a succession of disappointing results, but she’s another player for whom it’s not been a problem of technique.
Heather’s strokes have always been fine. Her problem has been her self-belief and confidence, though she has also had fitness and health issues in the last three or four years. Her frequent changes of coach haven’t helped either, so I hope that Colin Beecher and Morgan Phillips can now bring her some stability.
Azarenka is making her comeback after giving birth to her first child. She’s always been very strong on both flanks, especially when she is on the run, but there are areas of her game that are vulnerable.
When you hit the ball behind Azarenka she can sometimes be slow to react. Her second serve can also be a weakness: Heather will have to make sure she attacks it at every opportunity.
What Heather has to avoid is getting involved in cross-court slice battles. When Azarenka hits those slices, Heather needs to attack them. I also hope she goes into the net from time to time. Heather has very good volleys and I don’t think she can win if she stays rooted to the baseline.
Tales from the IMG Academy
Aspiring young tennis players come to the IMG Academy in Bradenton hoping we can help turn them into champions, but I’ve always seen our role as wider than that. I want our students to become good people as well as good players.
Max Mirnyi, who has been with us for 25 years and is still playing some great doubles at the age of 39, has been a model pro throughout his career and is every bit as generous and thoughtful as his father.
However, there was a time when even Max needed to be taught a lesson. As a teenager he was caught trying to look up an answer in a textbook to a question during a history test. He was surprised when I got to hear about it because he had thought that tennis was the only reason he was at the academy.
I told him never to do it again, suspended him from the tennis programme for three days and got him cleaning cars instead. Max told me later: “I learned two lessons: to never cheat in life and to always keep my cars clean.”
A tip from the top: Unless you’re super-human or have the physique of a Federer, Nadal, Murray or Djokovic, it’s inevitable that over the course of a match your body is going to start to break down. There’s not a lot that you can do about it, but there will be one part of your body that’s still intact: your mind. Think about how you can shorten the points and think about how you can stretch your opponent to the limit too. If you’re struggling, there’s every chance that they are too.
The perfect tennis player
Each day during Wimbledon I’m building a picture of the ideal tennis player by looking at a different aspect of the game. Today: the return of serve. We’re spoilt for choice in this category. Going into the past, Chris Evert, Monica Seles, Jimmy Connors, Michael Chang and Andre Agassi could all kill you with their returns. Martina Hingis could, too, and that’s one of the reasons why she’s still such a great doubles player.
Then you have the current generation. Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray are all great returners, as is Serena Williams. It’s a very close call, but I think I would put Murray at the head of the modern-day list. However, I would have to say that Agassi had the best returns of all time. He saw the return as a chance to attack and took the ball so early that he could immediately take control of a rally.
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