With Novak Djokovic, It Is Always a Struggle

With Novak Djokovic, It Is Always a Struggle

It was a struggle. For Novak Djokovic, it is always a struggle. We know it is because he says it is. “I’m trying to enjoy the moments on the court, but there is so much stress and pressure going on that it’s hard to have fun, so to say, on the court,” he said after a straight-sets win over Taylor Fritz in the U.S. Open quarterfinals. On the eve of the tournament, he put it this way: “You’re trying to outplay or outsmart your opponent tactically, but then you have to fight with your own demons as well, the self-doubt, tension, all the things that are happening in the midst of such battle.” Stress and pressure, self-doubt and tension: the essential qualities of his flawless game, what he inflicts on others and on himself.

And so there he was, in the second set of the U.S. Open men’s singles final, hunched and grimacing. Pain imprinted crow’s-feet along his eyes. Djokovic is thirty-six years old. He was playing in his seventy-second Grand Slam. He had made the final in half of them. The last time he had played in New York, two years ago, he had also been making a bid for history, attempting to win the “calendar-year Slam”—all four majors in one year. The pressure had overwhelmed him then, he recently admitted, and he had lost, meekly, in three sets, to Daniil Medvedev. He tries not to make the same mistake twice. Still, there it was: the stress, the tension, the struggle.

Medvedev was across the net again. This was a surprise, perhaps even to Medvedev. In the semifinals, Medvedev had upset the defending champion, the wunderkind Carlos Alcaraz, playing the match of his life. (The Russian graded his performance as a “twelve out of ten.”) Alcaraz seems like the perfect rival for Djokovic—as if Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Djokovic himself had been reincarnated together in the form of one happy phenom. Medvedev is more perplexing. His six-foot-six-inch body has the strange quality of seeming stretched, yet he has an extraordinary ability to balance while bending low and remarkable control while contorting himself. And he can run. Instead of the quick, precise footwork of most top players, he takes long, ungainly strides; his legs gulp the ground. His shots, too, are unorthodox. He often hits his second serve with the aggression of a first. He holds his backhand like a shovel. His forehand has a flailing motion. His racquet sometimes seems to wobble when it strikes the ball, as if mishitting it. He prefers to settle into long rallies, sometimes perversely, and yet can invent angles anywhere on the court. Medvedev had actually beaten Djokovic the last time they played, earlier this year, in Dubai—Djokovic’s only loss on a hard court all year. But Medvedev knew, he said before the match, that that result was relevant only in that it gave Djokovic more information about how to adjust.

At the start of the match, Medvedev was terrible. He missed serves not by inches but by several feet—bad misses, not the misses of calculated aggression—and made baffling errors all over the court. Djokovic broke Medvedev’s serve in the second game of the match, and then, on his serve, he began to take Medvedev’s measure. Medvedev was returning from so far back that he sometimes disappeared out of view of the telecast. Djokovic’s strategy was immediately apparent: seize the court that Medvedev gifted him. In his second service game, he tried something the great baseliner does not normally do: he served and volleyed. It didn’t work; Medvedev passed him. On the next point, he did it again—this time with success. Djokovic would serve and volley twenty-two times in the match, and he won twenty of them.

Medvedev settled, but not at a level at which he could hurt Djokovic. He did what he likes to do, playing deep, extending rallies. Not many players can out-defend the greatest defensive player the sport has ever seen. Medvedev can, sometimes; he seemed to be trying to do it, though, all the time. Djokovic took the first set, and the match seemed headed for a boring conclusion: he was 72–1 at the U.S. Open when winning the first set.

But perhaps one moment gave Medvedev some hope. It came only twenty minutes into the match. The two players exchanged ground stroke after ground stroke, the pace of the ball accelerating as the point went on. Medvedev pulled Djokovic wide, then slung the ball down the line. Then back it came crosscourt again: shot after shot. Finally, Djokovic bailed out, hitting a backhand into the net, and stumbled. It was a thirty-six-ball rally. Djokovic recovered with a textbook second-serve serve and volley, stabbing a winner into the corner, and the moment seemed to pass—it was hardly the first time in his career that Djokovic showed fatigue. Still, there were more of those to come.

At three-three in the second set, it happened again: a thirty-one-shot rally. This time, Djokovic fell to the court from exhaustion. This time, he did not immediately bounce back. The points lengthened. Medvedev scrambled, stretched, bunted balls, swung the rallies from side to side, drew Djokovic in and pushed him back. Djokovic was gasping for air. He barely leaned for balls that he might have reached, and hurried to the net to shorten the points. He staggered after long rallies, did lunges after a double fault. Between games, he iced his head.

The set stretched on: past an hour, an hour and a half. Still, every time Medvedev might have gained an edge, Djokovic was there—taking advantage of Medvedev’s open court by serving and volleying, or otherwise pressing forward to win the crucial points. The critical moment came when Medvedev gained a set point with Djokovic serving at 5–6. Djokovic came to the net. The passing lane down the line was open, and the ball sat up for a clean strike. But, instead of going down the line, Medvedev went crosscourt, right to the spot where Djokovic was standing. Djokovic won the point to save the set, and, it seemed, the match. After that, the result never seemed in doubt. Having survived the gruelling set, Djokovic looked revived. The third set passed quickly, inevitably. He won the match in just over three hours, 6–3, 7–6 (5), 6–3.

For all the long points—an astonishing fifty-four of them were nine shots or more—the majority of points, as in most professional matches, were short, four shots or fewer. And, there, Djokovic had the clear edge, winning sixty-three to Medvedev’s fifty.

Somehow, there was something new: a facet to Djokovic’s game that he’d never exploited. There was a time when he had been a mediocre volleyer. In this match, he came to the net forty-four times and won thirty-seven of those points. It was the right tactic, the obvious tactic, playing Medvedev—and yet, even for the best, the obvious thing can be hard to pull off. After the match, Medvedev admitted that he was regretful. He knew he’d chosen the wrong shot on set point. He knew he’d been standing too far back while returning. He’d failed to adjust. “I was too stubborn,” he said.

Djokovic, too, is famously stubborn. (He might have already won twenty-six Grand Slams, had he not refused to be vaccinated for COVID-19.) On the court, though, he fights it. He is flexible in body and mind; he adapts to circumstances. There is the struggle. Everything about him suggests that there is something uneasy deep within him: his military bearing, and the visible intensity in his hooded eyes. The honed contours of his body, free of any trace of fat. His flashes of anger and annoyance, and his grand shows of generosity. His complicated relationship to the public, the way that he yearns for love and admiration, and yet also “cocoons” himself, as he said during this tournament, or even seems to feed off their displeasure.

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