The 2012 ATP season has not gone according to plan. At least, not my plan. I think most tennis fans expected the season to be one long Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic fight for domination. What we got was a career resurgence from Roger Federer that saw the 30-year-old overtake them both for the world No. 1 ranking. Djokovic, for his part, has had a very good season but has played nothing like what he did in 2011 when he dominated the rest of the tennis world. What has happened to the Serbian, and can he ever regain that level of play that made him so tough to beat?
What I saw when I watched Djokovic play in 2011 was an ultra-focused player with a hard edge. Djokovic had always suffered as the No. 3 player in the world playing against the likes of Nadal and Federer. He never seemed able to channel the kind of play needed when the stakes were highest. He was loud, volatile, and prone to emotional outbursts when things didn't go his way (think Andy Murray). In other words, immature and childish.
Something finally clicked for Djokovic at the end of 2010. Some would say that it was a knowledge that his game was as good as anyone else's and that he could defeat anyone. I say he finally matured. It takes a certain amount of discipline to prepare and train to beat the best, and that disciplined approach ultimately paid off during the end of Grand Slam tournaments when he finally had the physical stamina and mental fortitude to surpass Nadal and Federer. He had something else, though. There was an edge and a drive that hadn't been there before that pushed him beyond his normal limits. For me that was never more demonstrated than in his semi-final match with Roger Federer at the 2011 U.S. Open when he won despite losing the first two sets.
It was not so much that he played so well when he had to. It was more that he knew that he would do it no matter how bad the odds. That sense of confidence and bravado has been missing for the most part of 2012. Yes, he did start the season by somehow defeating both Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal in epic five-set matches that took everything he had. Even then, I still expected Djokovic to play better and win a bit easier than he did.
Since the Australian Open, Djokovic has won just one title (Miami) despite playing in a total of seven additional tournaments (nine for the year). He's lost seven times (three to Nadal, once to Federer, and once to players like No. 4 Andy Murray, No. 11 John Isner, and No. 8 Janko Tipsarevic). He lost his grandfather during the clay court season and some might point to that for his poor results during that time. I would agree, but on the other hand Djokovic has been inconsistent since February.
He also hasn't seemed terribly upset when he loses and this is why I wonder how much of that fire that he showed in 2011 is still present. Whether it was his loss to Nadal at the French Open final or to Federer in the Wimbledon semi-final, Djokovic has been fairly matter-of-fact with his responses to questions after those matches. Is it possible that Djokovic's success in 2011 made him a touch softer while it hardened all his top rivals?
Whether Djokovic finds that top form that made him so dominant in 2011 is anyone's guess. He could easily sink back into being No. 2 or No. 3 for the next five years, winning one Grand Slam a year and being content with that while Nadal chases Federer's Grand Slam victory record. I hope that's not the case. Perhaps now that he's no longer the top-ranked player he will be able to relax a little with the lessening of the pressure that had been thrust upon him. He's carrying the national flag for Serbia at the opening ceremonies for the Summer Olympics later in July. Maybe that can light that fire in him once again to be his very best.
Julie has followed tennis her entire life and is sad now that Wimbledon, her favorite tournament, is over for another year. She's a featured tennis contributor for the Yahoo Contributor Network.
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- Roger Federer
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