Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
A popular ESPNconversations member, and Djokovic fan, The Wolf Princess of Mount Lupus, used to – rather aptly – call Djokovic Invictus. The first stanza to William Ernest Henley’s popular poem repeated in my mind as I watched Djokovic and Wawrinka battle out what would eventually become the closing point to an unexpected and yet breathtaking contest of shot-making, guts and will. And what a final point it was. As Djokovic reached over and hugged – almost consoled – the defeated Wawrinka, as he ripped off his shirt, letting out one of his primal screams, I wondered to myself when this scenario had become all too familiar for me. It’s becoming quite ridiculous, albeit still amazing, how many times Novak Djokovic has been pushed to the very brink of defeat, only to will himself back into the match and then win it.
It is amazing to think that this same player who represents something that borders on the invincible, was at one time unfortunately labeled as the image of the quitter, the player who didn’t have what it takes to go the distance, and who was doomed to squander his talents due to his inability to overcome his physical struggles. The Djoker he was called by many and it wasn’t solely due to his brilliant impersonations of other players. Novak Djokovic was considered a perennial third wheel, an opening act to be followed up by the main attraction that was the Fed/Rafa duopoly. Even after collecting the first of his six and counting majors at the 2008 Australian Open – a venue that is now officially Nole’s house – fans found it hard to take him seriously. It would seem first impressions really do go a long way for even as Djokovic silently began to build a solid grand slam record, posting semi-final after semi-final result, he was always the forgotten man lurking in the shadows of his two contemporaries. But just when everyone was beginning to relegate Novak Djokovic to that dreaded status of a one slam wonder, the Serbian found that intangible, unquantifiable and yet essential quality every great champion that has graced the game seems to possess. Belief.
It is difficult to tell when a player has truly found belief, mainly because it is so loosely talked about. Take for instance, in the tournaments that led up to the Australian Open, young players such as Dimitrov, Raonic and Tomic talked – rather convincingly if I might add – about finally believing that their games could hold up against the very best. They sent subtle hints that seemed to say I believe I’m finally ready to take the next step. Tomic and Raonic fell to Federer in successive third and fourth rounds, and Dimitrov never showed any belief in being able to get past the first round. Due to it’s elusive nature, it remains one of those qualities that can best be described as “I’ll know it when I see it.” And we all saw it when Djokovic beat Federer at the U.S open in 2010. Even though he lost to Nadal in the final, his post match celebration after that win against Federer, in retrospect doesn’t seem to be one of shock. It was one of realization. I can do this. I believe. For the first time, after years of his parents, coach, and fans believing in him, Djokovic finally believed in himself. What happened next, and what continues to happen since that match, is a bit of a blur.
With the final facet to his champion’s game fully incorporated into his tennis genome, Novak Djokovic proceeded to make mockery of the entire ATP field for two thirds of the 2011 season, capturing three of the four grand slams that year. In the wake of such a historic season – one made all the more remarkable when you consider who his contemporaries are – tennis analysts, players, former greats and fans alike wondered if he could do it again in 2012. Djokovic did not repeat the utter dominance of 2011. There were stutters along the way both on and off the court but true to Henley’s words, Novak’s soul remained unconquerable. This is just as well for while he lost some battles along the way, he eventually won the war, befittingly the last man standing in the O2 arena and lifting the trophy that proclaimed him the best of the best that season. Nadal, Tsonga, Murray and Federer to name a few had all taken their best shot at him and while they had managed to subdue him for stretches of the season, they never conquered him.
The thing about success is the more you achieve it, the more others demand the same of you and the more you demand the same of yourself. Such a notion is never more accurately captured than it is in tennis, specifically when looking at the top players. The more slams you win, the more you are compared to the all time greats, and the more chances you get to break long standing records or even set some unique ones of your own. Such was the opportunity and complimentary pressure presented to Djokovic as he entered this year’s Australian Open, bidding to become the first man to win it thrice in a row. As fate would have it, Novak Djokovic was dealt what seemed to be a very manageable draw to the finals. However fate is not without it’s infamous twists and turns. The resolve of the champion was without a doubt going to be tested, possibly by a Scotsman, or maybe a Czech, or maybe even a Swiss. In the end, it was a Swiss and in keeping with the unpredictability of tennis, that Swiss was not Roger Federer. Against any other opponent that night, Stanilas Wawrinka would have won the match possibly in straight sets. But that night, he was playing Nole and while he left the Serb’s head bloodied, he left it as yet unbowed. Match point over, the hug at the net, the shake with the umpire and then that all too familiar scream that seemed to say:
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul