Last week, Serbian tennis sensation Novak Djokovic was speaking on the phone from the Barclay on 48th Street. It was close to 9pm and a group of friends were waiting patiently outside his hotel room waiting to party in Manhattan.
“Everyone is beatable,” Djokovic said. “No one is unbeatable.”
He was discussing Roger Federer, the 11-time Grand Slam winner who Djokovic had defeated in the Rogers Cup Final, a US Open tune-up, nine days earlier.
“With Roger, you just have to stay with him and keep it up, play every point and not lose your mind,” he said. “You have to just stay right there. It’s difficult. Again, we are talking about one of the best players in the history of the tennis. It’s very hard to win against him on any surface, but you got to stay with him. If you’re nervous, he’ll use his biggest weapons and break you. You try to put some pressure on him.
“If you stay with him,” he continued, “you get your chances.”
Today, the U.S. Open kicks off in Queens and the unimpeachable Federer will be vying for his fourth-straight Open title, a modern-day record.
It’s the 20-year-old Djokovic who has the best chance to stopping him.
Since winning a tournament in Miami, then reaching the semis at both the French Open and Wimbledon, and this month, winning in Montreal, Djokovic has landed at No. 3 in the ATP Rankings and made the greatest leap of any player in men’s tennis this year.
“You know, why not?” he said about his chances in Queens. “After the win in Montreal and a couple other performances this year, I can see myself as one of the favorites for this year’s U.S. Open.”
The tennis world has noticed. He’s featured in this month’s Vogue, with a photo spread and the seal of approval of John McEnroe, who said he’ll be better than American golden boy Andy Roddick.
Djokovic relies on a powerful forehand and superb coverage at the baseline. But what’s made the difference this year, he said, is his growing understanding of the game – knowing that that’s not enough.
“I’ve been working on some certain things, mostly with my serve and my volleys,” he said. “I’m a pretty aggressive groundstroke and baseline player and most of my game is played from that. I am trying to get more to the net and to try to improve my serve, which is very important to the game.”
That alone would seem to separate Djokovic from the once highly regarded Roddick, who failed to expand his game beyond an initial comfort zone and never succeeded in rising to Federer’s level.
In Montreal, Djokovic showed his ability to adapt. He ran to the net constantly, but also showed an ability of shrewd court management. Federer has no weaknesses, but if there’s one opening, it’s his backhand, and Djokovic assaulted it.
“You have to try to do something tactic-wise to try to break him,” he said. “He has great spin, but you know the thing with his backhand is he can hurt you much more with his forehand, it’s his big strength. But again, he can create a lot of good opportunities for the winner with the forehand from his backhand slice.”
Every time Djokovic saw Federer’s seductive backhand, Djokovic pulled back on the slice and restarted the rally, the way a good point guard sets up an offensive set in basketball.
And throughout the tournament, he was unflappable mentally. In a seminfinal against the number two player in the world, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic saved eight break points. In his final against Federer, he won two tie-breaks by a shockingly lopsided score of 14-4.
“The top players, they all have good groundstrokes and volleys, it’s just a matter of mental strength at a certain moment,” Djokovic said. “I think I added a lot of confidence in the last couple months, winning in Miami. I got motivated and now it makes me even more comfortable on the court.”
Djokovic’s confidence will truly be put to the test over the next two weeks. As Federer pointed out at a press briefing in Queens on Saturday, there’s a big difference between the mental pressure of a tune-up and a Grand Slam.
“I think slowly but surely [the young guys] are getting ready to win maybe big tournaments, like Djokovic has been able to win a couple of Masters Series this year,” said Federer. “It’s going to be interesting to see how well they can do at Grand Slams.”
Implicit in that comment is that Djokovic hasn’t beaten him – or Nadal – on a big stage.
The unfailingly chivalrous Federer has begun to make it a habit of reminding Djokovic of that. In an interview with ESPN before the Rogers Cup Final, Federer said he “wasn’t that much impressed” with the Serbian. After Djokovic’s shocking triumph, Federer called the match “insignificant.”
I asked Djokovic if those comments bothered him.
“Actually, no,” he said. “I’m not paying attention to his comments. What he said was his thing. My point of view is that I made an incredible success and I really performed my best tennis in my career and I managed to win against the three best players in the world in the quarters, the semis and the final.”
At this point in the conversation, his friends were growing a little anxious, and after speaking for 30 minutes, Djokovic asked to excuse himself.
I asked him quickly if he had plans to soak in the nightlife in Manhattan while he was here. He laughed.
“I’m going to go a little bit, not too much,” he said. “You shouldn’t do that if you have a high ambition for the U.S. Open.”
And then he headed out.