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Novak Djokovic’s Dream Year

February 19, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Novak Djokovic has enjoyed an amazing 12 months, probably about as good a 12 months as any sportsman ever has.

His 2011 season saw him rack up a record of 70-6 (a win percentage of 92.1), making it one of the best seasons in tennis history. Of those six defeats, four came after the US Open, by which point the Serbian had arguably already checked out mentally. Djokovic did not lose until Roger Federer defeated him in the semi-final at the French Open in May, a remarkable 43 match winning streak. Although he lost at Roland Garros, Djokovic won the remaining three Grand Slams (Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open) and achieved a record of five Masters 1000 event wins (Indian Wells, Miami, Canada, Rome and Madrid). His season winnings of $12.6 million was just another in a long line of records Djokovic smashed in 2011.

What was most impressive was his dominance over the world’s top players. He went 6-0 against Rafael Nadal (all wins were in finals) and he bested Roger Federer 4-1. This saw him rise to become world number one and undoubtedly become the man to beat.

Tennis fans have known for years that Djokovic is extremely talented and he actually won his first Grand Slam in 2008 at the Australian Open. He did however, always seem to be operating on the rung of the ladder just below Federer and Nadal and looked set for a long stay as the world’s third best player. There were question marks over his conditioning as breathing difficulties and poor physical fitness led to numerous retirements. Furthermore, his mental strength was also doubted as he showed a propensity to become frustrated, which often manifested itself in Djokovic breaking rackets. In 2011, the Serb turned all of this on its head and his record of 10-1 over the two men who have dominated men’s tennis in the last decade is the biggest proof of this. So, what has changed? Well, it depends who you ask.

On one side of the fence you have those who point to clear technical improvements in Djokovic’s game, most notably his serve. In the past, this had been seen as the one clear weakness in his game, now it is a weapon. In years gone by, the world number one had a tendency to serve a fairly high number of double faults. Experts put this down to poor technique, noting that the elbow on his serving arm was very low, causing him to ‘bowl’ rather than strike the serve. This has now been rectified and Djokovic’s serve looks solid and he has become very difficult to ‘break.’ His second serve is also much improved and so there is less pressure on his first serve. In this year’s Australian Open final, Djokovic won 63% of points on second serve. His opponent Rafael Nadal won just 45%, a clear advantage for the Serb and probably the difference between winning and losing.  He has also improved his forehand and it is now arguably the most feared shot in tennis. Djokovic hits forehand winners that seem to defy the laws of physics almost at will and he is the only player on tour who seems to have found the perfect way of countering Nadal’s top spin and high bouncing forehand. He also looks much fitter. It is true that he has lost some weight and that he is consequently perhaps slightly weaker than he was before but during his record breaking season, Djokovic displayed unfathomable athleticism. There does not seem to be a spot on the court that the 24 year old cannot reach. He shows great speed and flexibility to reach shots that would be winners against anybody else. Rafael Nadal seemed as baffled as anybody else by Djokovic’s ability to return almost any shot and proclaimed: “It’s something unbelievable how he returns, no? His return probably is one of the best of the history. I never played against a player who’s able to return like this. Almost every time.” All of these technical and physical improvements have contributed to Djokovic becoming the world’s best tennis player, but some argue that the biggest factor behind his rise lies elsewhere.

The ‘Novak Djokovic Diet’ has become the stuff of legend, causing some to speculate that the days of sportsmen indulging in so-called ‘carb-loading’ may be over. In January 2010, Djokovic’s nutritionist discovered that his client suffers from a gluten allergy and subsequently removed it from the Serb’s diet. As mentioned already, Djokovic has lost some weight but he says that he has felt the benefits of the new diet right from the off, stating that he feels much better on court. Djokovic notes that his movement on court is much sharper and that he feels great physically, while world famous tennis coach Brad Gilbert has gone on record saying that he has never seen anyone move better on a tennis court. Given what we saw in 2011, it is impossible to disagree with either of them.

David Levitsky, Professor of Nutrition and Psychology at Cornell University in the US, feels that the gluten-free diet argument is over-played and that it is a case of mind over matter. Levitsky claims that “if you believe in a cause of your disorder, it becomes the cause.”

Whether or not this applies in the case of Novak Djokovic is anybody’s guess, but what is not in any doubt is the result. His trophy-laden year saw him deservedly crowned ATP Player of the Year, Ace of the Year by GQ magazine, ITF World Champion, BBC Overseas Sports Personality of the Year and he also won the highly prestigious Laureus World Sports Award for Sportsman of the Year.

Djokovic has continued the form of 2011 in to 2012 as he won the Australian Open in a five set thriller against Rafael Nadal. In truth, Djokovic looked a class above for large parts of that match. If he can maintain his current level, he is more than capable of dominating for years to come and maybe even of topping the achievements of Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.

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