Saturday, November 26, 2011

Will Djokovic retain the #1 ranking in 2012?

In a word, No. In a few words, I don’t think so. Or I can say this more certainty – hell no, not gonna happen. I’m not saying that Djokovic is going to flame out, or that he is going to be any less challenging the opponent he has been throughout 2011. It’s just that I think that having worked his ass off to become #1, Djokovic is about to discover that becoming #1 and remaining #1 are two entirely different issues, and that it is possible to achieve the one but choke in fear at the prospect of the other.

Tennis is a fascinating sport. It is a physically challenging game of course, but the mental tests are so much more. Becoming #1 is a physically daunting task. Remaining #1 requires far more mental fortitude. And I find myself doubting whether Djokovic can do this. I am beginning to wonder if he is going to turn out to be another of those players who, having achieved the top ranking, runs the risk of losing the drive and hunger that got him there in the first place.

This is one of the hazards you face when you celebrate your achievements almost too much. Having been feted and celebrated by all of Serbia, indeed by Serbians everywhere, having danced and partied like it was 1999 after he won three Slams in 2011 and became the decisive and indisputable #1 in the world, Djokovic seems to be on the verge of deflation. He just doesn’t seem to have the fight in him anymore.

In tennis, true success demands that you find ways to hold on to the hunger. True achievement requires that you not only compete against others, but that you find ways to compete against yourself, to push yourself to remain at the pinnacle. It is a mentally daunting task. And for the first time I find myself questioning if Djokovic is truly up to it.

Listen to any of his recent interviews after his failure experiences at the Barclay year-end championship. All of a sudden Djokovic is starting to sound like a whiny biyatch. He’s complaining that the season is too long. He’s complaining about the amount of tennis he has had to play. He’s whining that it is unfair, it’s too much.

I wonder if he would be prepared to hand over the millions of dollars he has earned this year just so he could remain ranked at # 3 or 4. I wonder if he would be prepared to give up all of his successes and not bother to break through to the top rank in this sport. Of course not. The problem is that Djokovic seems to want to have his gluten-free cake and eat it too. He wants to be #1 but he seems to be terrified of what he will have to do next year to remain there.

To which I say, if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the damn kitchen. Nobody put a gun to his head and told him to go on a tear from the start of the year. Nobody forced him to accomplish what simply no one else has thus far this year. Nobody told him to earn over 10 million dollars this year alone. It was, we can safely assume, his own motivation, his own hunger. And indeed, it was deeply impressive.

But earth to Novak: In this sport, if you can’t find a way to manage your career and your health with the intelligence of a Roger Federer, then it’s up to you to deal with the consequences. And the consequences are that you have a bucket-load of points to defend next year. Stop being a whiny biyatch and start planning for how you are going to do this.

Because all that the constant whining is doing is sending a signal to your opponents that you are terrified. That looking ahead, you’re already choking at the prospect of what you will have to do. And the more terrified and whiny you become, the more that pain in your back and shoulder is going to hurt. You decided that you wanted tennis success, well here’s what it takes. Now stop whining, suck it up, and figure out how you're going to get the job done.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Belated reminders of Federer’s greatness

I meant to ask some weeks ago if Djokovic was “afraid” to face Federer on his home turf in Basel. But upon reflection I decided that fear wasn’t quite the emotion I was aiming for. I’m not sure that Djokovic fears anyone at this stage of his career. But I wonder if he felt reluctant to face Federer, knowing that on his home turf, there was not a chance in hell of Federer snatching defeat from the jaws of success as he has done so many times this year.

Federer has had an unusual year by any measure. He got off to a great start in Doha where he won his 67th title. But at the Australian Open we noticed a pattern of giving up matches after victory seemed certain. Two sets up to none, Federer allowed Gilles Simon to come back from behind and win the next two sets. Federer eventually won the fifth set, but the experience turned out to be foreboding. Even when he was ahead, the King remained vulnerable.

By Indian Wells he had lost his #2 ranking to Djokovic who by then had already spanked Federer three times. Between all three events (Australian Open, Dubai, and Indian Wells), Federer won only a single set. As Djokovic proceeded on a tear, Federer saw himself defeated over and over in the finals of events. He lost to Nadal in Miami and Madrid, to Melzer in Monte Carlo, and inexplicably, to Gasquet in Rome. At Roland Garros Federer ended Djokovic’ amazing run, only to lose again to Nadal in the finals.

On grass at Wimbledon, despite playing a spectacular game (64 winners to only 11 unforced errors), Federer lost in five painful sets to Tsonga. I love me some Tsonga but when Federer lost to him again in Montreal, it damn near broke my heart. At Cincy, Federer failed to defend his trophy and fell to Berdych. At the US Open, he recorded his fourth season loss to Djokovic. That loss was particularly painful as Federer was up 5-3 in the fifth with two match points on his own serve. But Djokovic showed us why the fifth set is not about tennis. It is about mental fortitude and the psychological will to win.

I wonder if it was a sense of discouragement that led Federer to decide not to travel to Asia this year. Demoted to #4 in the ranking thanks to Murray’s Asian surge, Federer took several weeks off to rest and refuel. In hindsight this was for him the right decision. While the top three continued to bang their bodies this way and that, Federer quietly retreated from the spotlight. He had already qualified for the Barclay year-end championships. He had contributed to Switzerland advancing to the 2102 Davis Cup World Group. He had nothing to prove to anyone.

And then Basel happened. It was on his home turf, and it was on an indoor court. I don’t think people appreciate enough how brilliant Federer is on indoor surfaces. I particularly enjoyed his 6-3 6-2 dismissal of Andy Roddick. It was disappointing that he faced Kei Nishikori and not Djokovic in the finals. But by then Djokovic was hurting physically. His year-long quest for success has come at a tremendous physical cost. Look at him now; he looks gaunt and bone-weary. Federer meanwhile seems as fresh as a daisy.

After the win in Basel, Federer experienced another career breakthrough at the indoor BNP Paribas Master’s event in Paris. It was only fitting that he spanked Tsonga in straight sets in the finals. My daughter became thoroughly disgusted by my loud proclamations of revenge being a dish beat served indoors where Federer is king. And when he launched into French, upstaging poor Jo Willy in front of his homies, well I had to concede that Federer is just deliciously competitive in every sphere, isn’t he?

To be honest, I rather like Federer’s chances at the upcoming indoor year-end championship event. Granted, the top three are not currently in the best physical shape. Djokovic is nursing a bum shoulder. Rafa says that he is 100% healthy but I no longer believe a word that comes out of his Armani-posing mouth. Murray says he’s healthy but his ankle is always suspect. And down below, Fish is nursing a hamstring injury.

But even if his opponents were 100% healthy, I would still like Federer’s chances at the upcoming Barclay event. Dude is an indoor tennis champ. The conditions favor his crisp backhand. There is no wind to send his forehand shanking out of the stadium. There is no heat to beat him down into weariness. Or maybe this is all just wishful thinking on my part. Maybe I just want Federer to close out the year in style and give us all a belated reminder of just how great a tennis player he still is.