By Chris Oddo/ Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Ten days have passed since the 2013 US open final, and we've all discussed the possibility of Rafael Nadal reaching Roger Federer's lofty mark of 17 Grand Slam titles quite a bit by now. To summarize: The all-time Grand Slam title record is on Nadal's radar, and if he keeps up his current form he might do it by the time he turns 30.
Rafael Nadal is in good shape heading into 2014, but what about Novak Djokovic?
Photo Source: AP
But what will happen to Novak Djokovic over the course of the next few years?
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It's clear that Djokovic's form lies somewhere between his elevated levels of 2011 and his not-so-elevated levels of pre-2011, but where exactly Djokovic's form currently sits is not so easy to determine.
Three Grand Slam finals—including one Grand Slam title—and another semifinal is not such a poor haul for the Serb in 2013, but what to make of the losses and of the giving up ground in his nip-and-tuck rivalry with Nadal? Djokovic fought valiantly against the indomitable Spaniard in Paris but was the victim of circumstances (the draw), bad luck (the now infamous net touch) and a bad-to-the-bone, hell-bent-on-destruction Nadal in the end.
A few weeks later Djokovic continued his remarkable run of consistency in the Slams by reaching the Wimbledon final, but he again fell short of a seventh Grand Slam title when he turned in a less-than-inspiring effort in his straight sets loss to Andy Murray; At the US Open he was daunting and dazzling at times, but in the final it was his slow start and lack of a sense of urgency in the first set that ultimately made Nadal an impossible hurdle to overcome.
Which brings us to the crux of the matter. Does it not feel like Djokovic has lost his sense of urgency to a certain degree? How else to explain his up and down-ness in the biggest matches this season? Instead of storming the gates as he did in the 2011 Wimbledon (6-4 first set) and US Open (6-2 first set) finals, Djokovic has opted for a more passive approach in 2013, laying back and letting his opponent be the aggressor too often.
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Why is this? Does Djokovic Have such a flair for the dramatic that he simply can't bear the thought of winning without some form of epic struggle? Has he not fully embraced the fact that he is the hunted, not the hunter, these days?
Is there any reason other than a lack of intensity or a very small yet significant lack of respect for the opponent that Djokovic would play with such a lack of purpose in the first set of his US Open final with Nadal? He went through the motions in that set, not making a peep, while Nadal came out ready to kick and punch and bite for every point. Only after Djokovic found himself on the verge of falling behind two sets did he finally show his teeth and start hitting with verve, grunting and grinding out rallies. It worked, and suddenly for the first time in a long time somebody was outplaying Nadal decisively, moving him to and fro, winning 54-stroke rallies, breaking his serve (three times in a row, no less) and lashing winners with striking ease.
Where was that Djokovic in the first set, and for that matter, where was that Djokovic in the first set of his semifinal against Stan Wawrinka, when he was mercilessly handled by the big Swiss?
Maybe he was back in the locker room (eating spoonfuls of manuka honey?) still stretching, but he certainly wasn't completely present on the court.
Those two listless opening sets would ultimately prove to be Djokovic's downfall in New York. Eventually, after a long, see-saw battle, he would survive the Wawrinka struggle in five, but it couldn't have been good for his legs with a titanic struggle with Nadal on deck. After his poor start against Nadal, Djokovic had golden opportunities to take a two-sets-to-one lead in the third, not because Nadal's level dropped but because Djokovic was that awesome. Courageous, electric, near perfect, the Serb wouldn't take no for an answer. But after falling behind a set against the most mentally tough warrior that the game may have ever seen, his last-ditch attempt at slaying the fire-breathing Nadal was too little, too late.
After he dropped the third set, Djokovic's house of cards collapsed in the fourth. The lesson? Nadal was better not necessarily because he was more talented, he was better because he was committed to victory from the very first ball of the first round of the US Open to the very last ball of the final. Djokovic did not fall short because of a lack of talent—it was crystal clear in the second and third set that his game can be every bit as scintillating now as it was in 2011—but because of a lack of intensity. Call it focus, call it desire, call it warrior wisdom. Whatever it is, in 2013 Djokovic had a lot, but not enough, to win the big titles.
Was the season a failure? Of course not. But given that we were tabbing Djokovic for double-digit Slams after he smothered Andy Murray in the Australian Open final, it can only be seen as a disappointment in relative terms.
With six Slams under his belt at the age of 26, does Djokovic still have double-digit Slams in him, or has his time at the top of tennis' pecking order come and gone? We'll likely find out in 2014. With Nadal a safe bet to regain the No. 1 ranking in the coming months, Djokovic will once again be the hunter and not the hunted.
Maybe that suits him better philosophically, and maybe, just maybe, it will help him redouble his focus and be that mind-bogglingly perfect tennis player that he was in 2011. Djokovic's 2011 might go down as one of the most remarkable single seasons in tennis history, but if he doesn't come back on stage for an encore—and soon—he'll be remembered as much for not backing it up as he was for producing those captivating highs.