In the opinion of many, it all began in New York. It was 2008 and Novak Djokovic had beaten home favorite Andy Roddick in the quarter-finals. It had been a match hardened by tensions: throughout the tournament Djokovic had suffered physical problems, which the American believed to be only imaginary, to the point that in the conference that anticipated the match he had made fun of him: «Djokovic? Yes, he had 16 injuries. He has SARS, avian flu, colds, anthrax », among the complicit giggles of the journalists. It is never a good idea to give Novak an extra reason to win a game. After the victory he had settled down in the center of the field, towel over his shoulders, and while an elderly reporter interviewed him he enjoyed the boos of the audience. He had run his tongue over his cheeks and had thrown some other provocation there: “They were already against me because they think I’m faking injuries, so who cares.” For years he had tried to convince everyone that he was a nice person. He did imitations of tennis players, he was the most confident on microphones, the most brilliant in interviews. But it hadn’t helped.
Three years later – or ten years ago – Djokovic is back in the ring at Arthur Ashe Stadium, with the vertical walls of a Roman arena, and in front of him he has Roger Federer serving for the match. It was a crazy semi-final: ahead two sets to zero, Roger used all his art of self-sabotage to get carried away to the fifth set. There, however, he found, no one knows where, a flash to break Djokovic and serve for the match. In the final there would be Rafael Nadal and the public wants nothing more. On 15-15 Nole misses a simple answer for him, on Federer’s second; while the audience cheers, the anger is such that Djokovic throws the Sergio Tacchini cap off his head. After a backhand at goal, Federer has two Championship points; the audience is all on their feet to rejoice and Nole – now entered into a warrior dimension that almost lifts him off the ground – launches a look that seems to be able to understand them all, every single person in the audience. It contains all the hatred and disgust that he felt on his skin and that he wants to give back to others.
That’s the moment of “The Shot”: the answer that Nole throws with her eyes closed, shooting her blindly at the intersection of the opposite lines. An answer that undermines the game plan and the balance of tennis. Nole wins and confirms that his moment of grace is not impromptu: he is not an intruder, he is there to stay. Nobody manipulates the psyche like him. But that blow has above all had the effect of shattering the mental stability of Roger Federer, crazy and wasted like never in the press conference. That response, even more than his first Australian Open, even more than his first Wimbledon, marked the beginning of the era of Djokovic’s mental dominance over world tennis. Roger Federer’s vengeful run-up to the Grand Slams that should have ended on Sunday evening.
Ten years later, Sunday evening
Perhaps out of superstition, perhaps for some holistic belief that everything in the cosmos corresponds, at the moment when Djokovic had almost lost the final against Medvedev, he tried to change his shirt, as he had thrown away his hat ten years earlier. He is a man who thinks he can bend reality with thought – I mean literally – and often, moreover, it seems to succeed. He is down 4-6, 4-6, 2-5 but despite such a difficult score it is impossible to consider the game over. Djokovic is the best tennis player in the world not to lose, to flirt with defeat only to go a longer way to victory. But that evening he doesn’t look like him.
His psychic presence – so infectious in every game – is feeble and his game crumbled. He does not take the usual meditative time between one point and another, he is in a hurry to make the agony shorter, he still serves with the shouting of the public in the background. He misses easy balls and makes terrible mistakes. When the smell of blood spreads on the field, due to a small decline in Medvedev, he does not take advantage of it with the usual predatory cynicism. He does not leave the field for the classic toilet break after the lost set. He doesn’t shout, he doesn’t cheer like in the movie 300 (one of his favorites). Just a cracked racket at the start of the second set like it was the last cracked racket of his life.
He also seems to have a hard time standing up, or holding the ball in his hand before serving – as if it were the unbearable yoke of his existence. What’s on his mind? For once, did he really let himself be overwhelmed by doubt, by the fear of failure?
While Djokovic looks like a ghost, Medvedev continues to do what he has been doing for the whole tournament: playing a subtle and refined tennis. If Djokovic slows down, he slows down more; if Djokovic wants to trade on the backhand diagonal, he starts trading there as if he wants to stay a week; if Djokovic hits one short ball, then he tries two. It takes away the rhythm and the breath. If Djokovic tries to accelerate, trying to go and see his opponent’s bluff, there is no bluff: Medvedev accelerates even harder, forehand or backhand, opening his shots with the crooked emphasis that makes him so strange. and fascinating.
They had played against in the final of the first Grand Slam of the year, and Djokovic had had Medvedev stretch out on his own personal operating table (the AO field), taking it apart one piece at a time. This time the Russian is ready, and Djokovic extraordinarily compliant. The cold mental domination that Nole usually inflicts on others, this time he suffers. Between the second and third set, Medvedev starts throwing a short ball worse than the other. Djokovic is so caught up in the Russian’s tactical spell, that he misses all the recoveries, finding himself a rough arm like we had never seen. As if the cerebral dimension of the game, and its psychological violence, had finally made all the other components useless. As if Medvedev, having removed the mental premises of Djokovic’s game, had reduced him to a lifeless body, a minimal player.
Nole played one of the worst endings of her life, but it was Medvedev who built the canvas that made such a crash possible.
A little love, finally
When Djokovic changed his shirt for the first time he tried to stop the psychological bleeding of that match. At that point, at 5-2 for the Russian, one thing happens. The public, who supported him from the start of the match, who wanted to accompany him by the hand to take the Grand Slam, began to cheer him with a crazy and over the top cheering. Which, in tennis, above all means cheering against the opponent. And so, while Daniil Medvedev, on 40-15, serves with two Championship Points available, the audience begins to boo and shout at him, in a desperate attempt to reverse the flow.
The New York crowd is always loud and unruly, but booing a player on serve is too much even for his black tradition. Medvedev, in the evening as a serve-bot, commits two double fouls and Djokovic gets the first break of the match. Medvedev is not just anyone for that audience: he is what he is enjoyed of his whistles a few years earlier, which signaled to let him get more, “they will recharge me for the next five games”. Who used to drink from the hatred of the stadium? In a way it looks like a handover. Then Nole holds the report, amid the din of an ecstatic audience. At that point Novak Djokovic has an epiphany: for the first time he feels surrounded by the love that all his life he thinks he deserves.
He goes to sit at the change of court with a shocked face. He rubs it with the towel in an attempt to bring it back to normal, to dry the emotion, but when the referee calls “time” he is still transfigured, his eyes shining and in tears. Play a few points in an indescribable state, the court shaken by a dramatic energy that belongs only to tennis.
Perhaps that is the moment when Novak Djokovic realizes that, compared to that love, the reason he was there – to win a tennis match, to win the twenty-first Grand Slam of his life, the fourth of the year, to prove himself the stronger against everything and everyone – it wasn’t worth much. The absurd journey of the big-3s, the pursuit of mutual greatness, the desperate attempt to close one Grand Slam more than the others, at that moment turned out to be a hallucination.
That is the moment when Novak Djokovic, as we know him, perhaps ceases to exist. The nervous energy that had kept him alive is gone, his redemption accomplished.
Now, finally, he can allow himself the luxury of losing.