The first time, it could have been brushed off as a fluke. The second time, it could conceivably have been seen as a quirky coincidence. The third time, it made us sit up and take notice. And now, when it has happened for the umpteenth time, we have no option but to shrug and marvel at the daredevilry of it all.
That’s right, it’s official now. Novak Djokovic has turned into the quintessential Comeback King of the men’s tour, with a particular affinity for obliterating match points in a manner that suggests he has a personal vendetta against them.
In the final of the Shanghai Masters against Andy Murray this Sunday, Djokovic saved five match points – FIVE! – before going on to register a comeback win for the ages. Except that it wasn’t a win for the ages, because Djokovic has made saving match points on his way to victory something of a regular occurrence. More than the mere fact that he saves so many match points, though, the outstanding thing about these escape acts is the way that he constructs them: when backed completely into a corner, with just one shot separating him from life and death, Djokovic takes the situation head-on, abandoning all pretense of caution, and swings for the fences. In other words, Djokovic produces his best tennis when it really matters the most. A handy little trick, isn’t it?
As we all know, Djokovic’s exploits in Shanghai actually pale in comparison with some of his earlier acts of match point bravado. The stage and the occasion were infinitely grander the first time he gave us a glimpse of his last-gasp heroics: Roger Federer didn’t know what hit him when Djokovic unleashed two bone-crunching forehands to erase two match points in the 2010 US Open semifinal. The very next year, the entire world didn’t know what hit them when, faced with double match point in the US Open semifinal once again, Djokovic came up with that forehand return winner to carve his name into history. For good measure, Djokovic decided to give Jo-Wilfried Tsonga a taste of the fun too, as he erased a bunch of match points at this year’s French Open to silence an obviously partisan Paris crowd.
Of course, Djokovic’s ultra-aggressive, no-holds barred play doesn’t make an appearance only when he’s facing match point. In last year’s US Open final against Rafael Nadal, the Serb looked spent by the end of the third set, and Nadal’s rousing 3rd set tiebreak performance seemed to have turned the tide irrevocably in the latter’s favor. A medical timeout duly followed, and Djokovic seemed to be on his last legs. But just like they had in those match point-saving performances, Djokovic’s predator-like instincts kicked in, and he started blasting groundstrokes to all parts of the court, which helped him take the 4th set 6-1 and with it the match. A similar thing happened in this year’s Australian Open final, with Nadal serving at 4-2 in the final set, and in last month’s US Open final, with Murray up two sets to none (though in the latter case, of course, he couldn’t quite make the predator within him last till the very end).
What is it about staring defeat in the face that awakens the warrior spirit in Djokovic? What is it about facing the point of no return that makes Djokovic step up and grab the match by the scruff of the neck? The man himself will probably not be able to come up with a definitive answer if he was asked that question, so far be it from us armchair analysts having much hope of arriving at a logical explanation. It is entirely possible, of course, that there isn’t actually any logical explanation. It is possible that it is just an instinctive thing, without rhyme or reason; that when Djokovic knows he has nothing to lose, he just closes his eyes and swings at everything that comes his way, hoping that his shots fall in. And if that’s actually how Djokovic approaches these situations, then there’s nothing we can do except sit back and admire his incredibly courageous mind.
It’s funny how any analysis of a Djokovic performance, win or lose, always comes down to his state of mind. When he wins, his gumption and determination are highlighted; when he loses, his shortcomings between the ears are blamed. His loss to Rafael Nadal at this year’s French Open was largely attributed to a lack of self-belief, and his loss to Roger Federer at this year’s Wimbledon was widely put down to impatience and mental fatigue. On the other hand, his aura of confidence on hardcourts was chiefly credited for his Australian Open victory. It’s almost like the foundation on which Djokovic plays tennis – his game – is irrelevant to the outcome of his matches. And when you look at the bare essentials of his tennis – razor-sharp groundstrokes, superhuman foot speed, solid serve, scorching return – that’s not entirely surprising. Djokovic can use his watertight game to rally endlessly and stay close to the best players in the business, often without even needing to fire himself up. In essence, for large portions of his matches, Djokovic uses his lack of physical weaknesses to take the mental aspect of the game completely out of the picture. But when push comes to shove and he is left with no option but to turn it on, the full brilliance of his tennis comes to the fore in the most dramatic of circumstances.
The way I see it, the last two years have taught us a couple of very important things about Novak Djokovic: 1. in passive, autopilot mode, his game is good enough to challenge any player on the tour, and 2. he plays at his aggressive best only when he’s put under severe pressure. The second point may suggest that by refusing to grab the initiative Djokovic throws himself in the line of fire, but then you look back at point no. 1 and realize that he’ll very rarely be thrown in the line of fire at all. Four Grand Slam victories and almost complete immunity from the upset loss over these two years indicate that Djokovic may have arrived at one of the most foolproof formulae for success that tennis has ever seen. But as sadistic as this sounds, those moments when Djokovic plays with fire are, perhaps, his best moments; when you see that bullet forehand sizzle through the court on match point, leaving a stunned opponent and delirious crowds in its wake, you know you’re watching tennis theatre at its finest.