Reflections on Novak Djokovic's Fiery Finish to 2014
Where on earth do you aim a serve when Novak Djokovic is crouching, swaying from limb to limb, ready to pounce? Where do you attack when Novak Djokovic will be on any and every one of your greatest strikes in a flash, primed and perfectly balanced to reflect the shot with double the venom?
These are questions that inevitably slip into the consciousness of every player before each outing to meet the No. 1 tennis player in the world. Incessant and unrelenting, they gnaw into the minds and disrupt the decision-making process during points. They ultimately affect the outcome of matches.
It shouldn't be this way. Not when the server is supposed to hold pure, autonomous control over the first stroke of the point. Nor when all players are human, and so everyone should bear the burden of some kind of weakness that can be prodded, picked at, and exposed by the right person. When risk is supposed to at least allow a player to soar or burn on his own terms.
But the world No. 1 is unique. Against all but the greatest, there are no terms but his. The concept of taking the match by its reins and dominating the Serb in full flight is a fantasy. While his opponents are searching fruitlessly for weaknesses that don't exist, he is busy exploiting their own.
This is no new information, but it was all the more striking during a week in which Djokovic faced off against four of the top nine players in the world and all four at one point stared at him, eyes glazed over in unadulterated fear. He escaped the group stages with a record low of nine games conceded, and even when he finally found his first opposition in Kei Nishikori, a set of searing tennis from the Japanese star was sandwiched between a breadstick and bagel.
His level throughout the week was genuinely petrifying. Every serve was returned pump on the laces of the opponents. Reaction time is supposed to be the greatest challenge of returning serve, but when Djokovic is on the court the rules of tennis are flipped and it's the lack of time the server has to react to Djokovic's return that decides matches.
Standing ahead of Djokovic were four very different aggressive players. But whenever either of his forehand or backhand was pulverized, the ball was returned even deeper than before. If not that, it fizzed past the aggressor at the net, or else, with abundance of timing, it was re-directed straight for the corners.
Yet when his opponents dared to relent, to take a breather, or try to construct points, the Serb himself pounced and immediately killed the point. It's simply isn't possible to face a player who doesn't allow any type of game style against him to excel and leave with pride intact.
In the end, the final didn't happen and Djokovic's bitter disappointment ahead of the world's media as the giant trophy rested next to him told it all. It could have been one of the all-time most impressive runs, but instead it concluded on a sorrowfully limp note with the attention unavoidably snatched away from the victor.
The form of this week shouldn't be forgotten, but there is always the sense that he feels it will be. As with every extended Novak Djokovic bakery run and winning streak – he has currently triumphed in 31 successive indoor matches - the question of whether the Serb is appreciated enough inevitably springs up.
The feeling is that he would certainly say “no,” and this was again evident against Nishikori in his final match of the week. Leading 6-1 1-0 with a break, he double-faulted, and a roar of applause rippled across the arena. Djokovic rolled his eyes and sarcastically applauded his antagonists, only to find boos and whistles in response.
“Some individuals that were going over the line throughout the whole match,” he said afterwards. “Some provocations that I usually don't react on, but I did. It was my fault.”
Regardless of whether the issue at hand was specific comments or the audible cheers of a crowd hoping for an actual match, this is far from the first time this has happened. Over the years the Serb has been criticized for his over-sensitivity to the whims of the crowd. He reacts, he raises his arms, he tries to provoke a reaction in whichever way comes to mind. There seems to be such a deep-rooted desperation to be loved by fans, and it always seems a reminder to him that neither of the two players standing above him would ever have received the lack of recognition and support sometimes bestowed upon him.
There are reasons to agree and disagree. Those against will point to the drastic gulf in Grand Slams and the fact that Djokovic has narrowed the gap between himself and the two greatest active players in so many of the statistical columns yet, after numerous no-shows or meltdowns on the biggest stages, not the most important one. He is the first and only person in history to lose major finals against Andy Murray, and despite being the best player in the world by a dramatic distance for much of this period, he hasn't captured more than one major per year since his true breakthrough in 2011. That his peak performances of the year come again after the Grand Slam season has concluded speaks volumes, they say.
Others will claim he is a victim of the fact that the world he marched into tearing his shirt and walloping his chest, was a world where supporting only Nadal or Federer was acceptable, and he never even stood a chance.
But if anything is certain, it's that with this final flourish, Novak Djokovic has made the last four seasons collectively his own. And the fear he strikes in the hearts of most of the best players on this planet is the greatest compliment any player should need.