At 26, Novak Djokovic is in his physical prime as an athlete so it’s hard to believe that he‘s still developing as a player. After all the Serb has amassed six Grand Slam titles so far in his glittering career and after making the final at four of the past five majors, he’s proved that he’s very much at the peak of his powers.
However Djokovic has been unhappy with his inability to pull himself over the finishing line over the past year and a half. He’s been tantalisingly close to glory on many occasions yet the likes of Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray have just been able to find something a little extra to deny him the big prizes.
Djokovic has made no secret of the fact that the French Open title is now his most coveted trophy in tennis. Triumphing at Roland Garros would make him the latest player to complete the career Grand Slam but so far Nadal has proved insurmountable on Court Philippe Chatrier. Djokovic’s epic defeat to the Spaniard in the semi-finals back in June stung hard but he says that he’s still learning and feels that his losses to Nadal in both Paris and New York have made him a better player.
“What happened happened, and everything happens for a reason,” he said. “Those losses that I had against Nadal in the big matches made me understand what I need to do to become a better and stronger player. That's all that matters now.”
Djokovic ended the year in style with a couple of convincing wins over his rival, outplaying him in Beijing and edging a close battle in the final of the World Tour Finals. And while Nadal still ended 2013 deservedly as world number one, Djokovic feels that his successful autumn has given him a slight psychological edge heading into the new season.
“I won over 20 matches in a row so with all the confidence that’s given me, I'm heading into the new season feeling great and hopefully this can be the year for me where I can challenge Rafa at Roland Garros.”
Djokovic revealed that after the US Open, he resigned himself to losing the top spot in the rankings to Nadal and just focused on trying to win more matches and titles.
“Year‑end No.1 is deservedly in Nadal's hands because he had two Grand Slam wins, the best season out of all players, the most titles,” he said. “I think that you cannot question that. Even though I had an incredible two and a half months after the US Open final, he was the most successful player this year. For me, I tried to put aside the calculations and the rankings after US Open and just tried to focus on one tournament at a time, one day at a time. That kind of attitude has helped me to get to where I am at this moment.”
While Murray has established himself as a leading contender for tennis’ biggest crowns over the past eighteen months, he remains inconsistent and with Roger Federer’s decline, the Djokovic-Nadal rivalry has become the defining match-up in the sport these days. And while Nadal appeared to have gained a strong edge early this year, Djokovic says that their rivalry has always been full of ebbs and flows.
“Looking at the matches that we’ve had against each other in the past few years, it has been shifting, who is winning more matches in a row. It hasn't been the case that one player wins, 10 in a row and is being very dominant because it really goes up and down. But we push each other to the limit. We make each other better players. We make each other work harder on our games, especially when we play against each other. It's always a huge challenge.”
Djokovic believes that this season Nadal has been in many ways far stronger than he was before he spent nine months out of the game, especially on the cement of North America.
“He has improved his game immensely on hard courts this year,” he said. “He’s been positioning himself really well, staying closer to the line and using his forehand around the court really well, as well as serving more efficiently, which was of course giving me and other players a lot of trouble. And there’s the fact that he's one of the fittest and physically toughest players in the world. He’s made himself an even more complete player on a surface that was his least favourite.”
“After the US Open final, I needed to take things slowly and analyze what I did wrong, to understand what I needed to do in order to win against him again. There is a big team of people around me that are very professional and they've done their best in order for me to improve my game. I think the results have shown that we’ve had a great improvement in the last two and a half months.”
Djokovic’s form during the autumn brought back memories of his sensational performances in 2011 when he went unbeaten for almost six months and he feels that it was the best tennis he’s played since then.
“Compared to my run in 2011, this is definitely the second best,” he said. “And the most positive thing that I can take from this two and a half months is the fact that I managed to regroup after a few big losses, especially Roland Garros, US Open final and the Wimbledon final.”
He may appear to be arguably the most complete player in the men’s game but Djokovic says he still continues to tinker with things every now and then.
“I work hard all the time to play better and become an even more skillful player,” he said. “I've worked on a few things in my game and my serve that has helped me win a lot of matches in last two months. This serves as a great platform for the 2014 season. I'm extra motivated and inspired to work and get myself rested and recovered, and then work on my game and get ready for Australian Open.”
How can you better play a passing shot…
as a second shot?