The Novak Principle

The intensity always comes and it always surprises. What happens is this: I begin watching Novak Djokovic play in a big match and, you know, whatever, right? Yes, I like Djokovic. But I like a lot of men’s tennis players — Federer, Nadal, Monfils, del Potro, Anderson, Nishikori, Thiem, Zverev, on and on, heck, I’ve rooted for Nick Kyrgios now and again. And I don’t really dislike any players these days. The more tennis I play, the more admiration I feel for the players’ skill, the more joy I feel for the beautiful points. It doesn’t even matter; could be two total unknowns.

The match begins, and I feel unattached. Do I want Djokovic to win? Maybe. Doesn’t matter too much though.

It always comes as a big surprise when the emotional wave hits.

“Come on, Novak!” I shout repeatedly at the television. “Let’s go!”

My stomach clenches. My voice shakes. “Come on Novak!” It’s always a shock, every match, how much it matters to me, how much he matters to me. I’m like that guy in Memento who wakes up without memory only to find, “Wow, I’m actually kind of a psychotic Djokovic fan.” Maybe I should have it tattooed on my arm.

There’s no history real here. It’s not like we’ve had any bonding experiences. I only met Novak Djokovic one-on-one once, and it isn’t much of a story. It was in London, at the Olympics, and I was going through the security line into the tennis grounds when Djokovic’s team, obviously running late, raced in behind me.

“Would it be OK if we go in front of you,” Novak asked. “We are in a hurry.”

“Of course,” I said.

“Thank you very much,” he said.

That was the whole thing. I thought it was nice that he asked — he didn’t have to do that, he certainly could have jammed right in front. And it was nice that he thanked me. But it was hardly an earth shaking experience for either of us.

At the time, Djokovic was coming off his first extraordinary season, his out-of-nowhere 2011 when he won three of four majors, won five Masters 1000s, moved up to No. 1 in the world. He was a cool story. And, eh, didn’t care. Liked Federer. Liked Nadal. Wasn’t playing much tennis. Whatever.

It wasn’t until the Wimbledon final of 2014 that I involuntarily rooted for Novak for the first time. He was facing Federer in that final, and nobody wanted him to win. Why would you want him to win? Federer was getting older; at the time it seemed like this might be his last chance to win his eighth Wimbledon (it was not). Plus, he’s Roger Federer, the most graceful of players, the nicest of men, the inspiration for David Foster Wallace’s “Federer Moments,” those “times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re OK.”

The match began, and I was firmly on the side of Federer and history. The change came suddenly and unexpectedly and in the fifth set. Djokovic should have won the match in the fourth. He served for the match. But the moment overwhelmed him. Federer broke him. Then Federer broke him again. And it was on to the fifth set with the London crowd redlining and Federer in full flight.

That’s when I first heard that voice: “Come on Novak.” Who said that? I said that. I’ve never been surprised by my rooting interest before. I grew up in Cleveland, so I root for Cleveland. I lived most of my life in Kansas City, so I root for Kansas City. I visited Burnley a few years ago and fell in love with the place, so I root for Burnley. There are no mysteries here.

But with Novak, it was different, visceral, entirely inexplicable. I ached and yelled and hoped through that tense fifth set until Federer missed a forehand and then a backhand and the match was suddenly over and Djokovic was champion. He was so happy. I was so happy. What gives? I had no idea. I thought it was a one-time thing; me being the ultimate contrarian and rooting for the guy nobody wanted to win.

But it didn’t go away. At the U.S. Open, I found myself screaming at the television again, this time in pain as Kei Nishikori — a player I like very much — blitzed Djokovic. “What are you doing Novak?” I shouted constantly throughout the match. He looked tired. Lifeless. Disinterested. “Come on Novak!”

So weird. By then I had started playing tennis religiously, and I’ll bet not one person I played with would be able to tell you I was this nutty Djokovic fan. When we talked tennis, I’d tell them how much I like Caroline Wozniacki and Roger Federer and Serena, of course, and Rafa, naturally, and Djokovic, sure, and lots of other players. Then another Djokovic match would start, and I’d begin watching neutrally, and by the second set, inevitably, that voice would come out again: “COME ON NOVAK!”

* * *

None of us knew if Djokovic would ever be great again. That has been the big puzzle for a while. Djoker showed up seven years ago unexpectedly; he had been a perfectly fine player up to 2011. He had been ranked third in the world for four years, which is impressive. But third in the age of Fed and Rafa is nowhere. He was just “one of the other guys.”

Then that year, as mentioned, emerged as a whole new force. It reminded me of the legendary story of jazz great Charlie Parker getting thrown off the stage in Kansas City spending all of 1937 out of sight, woodshedding to the beat of Count Basie records. Woodshedding is a term defined loosely as “practicing a musical instrument,” but it really means losing yourself, transforming yourself, and Charlie Parker came out of his time away playing a whole new sound. Djoker went woodshedding, and in 2011 he came out as a the best player on earth.

In 2016, the precise opposite happened. Djokovic was at the top of his game, playing tennis — I will argue — better than anyone had ever played it before. He became the first man in the Open Era to win four consecutive grand slam tournaments in the two years he had been to the finals of 13 Masters 1000, winning 10 of them. He was No. 1 in the world by like 10 million points. It was pure insanity; nobody could touch him.

Then suddenly, shockingly, with no warning, he went to pieces. The reasons have been much discussed inside the tennis world. He suffered an elbow injury. He also went through a rough patch in his personal life. He changed coaches more or less every week.

But there was something else, something beyond reason; it was like he lost his life force. To play tennis the way Djokovic plays at his best requires a depth of drive and will that is not easy to summon. After the French Open in 2016, it felt like Djokovic no longer wanted to summon that part of himself. He lost at Wimbledon to big-serving Sam Querrey. He was knocked out of the Olympics in the first round by a Juan Martin del Potro forehand fireworks display. The mercurial Stan Wawrinka hit him off the court at the U.S. Open.

It got worse from there. He lost to someone named Denis Istomin at the Australian Open, and this year lost to someone named Chung Hyeon in straight sets. He got upset so routinely that no one saw it as an upset. He got hurt and took off some time to get his elbow fixed. He changed coaches daily more often than ever.

There were moments when he looked a bit like his old self, but they faded quickly. What were his chances at this year’s Wimbledon? He was the 12th seed; he really wasn’t on the tournament radar. He played solid enough tennis, but more he caught an easy draw when young stars Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev dropped out early. When he got to the semifinals to face Rafael Nadal, he hadn’t yet proved anything.

And that match — that two-day dream of a match — was one of the great viewing experiences of my life as a sports fan.

* * *

Rafa-Novak followed the 6-hour-plus servathon between Kevin Anderson and John Isner; that’s why it had to be played over two days. Isner-Anderson was like a television series that you somehow got hooked into watching and by the time you realized that it wasn’t going anywhere it was too late; you just wanted to fast forward to find out how it would end. It wasn’t compelling tennis — there were 102 aces, 83 unforced errors, 239 forced errors — but it was compelling drama. Anderson won finally, mercifully. Djokovic and Nadal took the court as the sun was ready to set over London.

And for two days, they drove each other to higher ground. This is what they have been doing to each other for more than a decade. It was their 52nd meeting. No other pair in the Open Era have played so often. They know each other so well that there are no secrets left between them, no tricks either can use. All the nonsense is stripped away. The best man wins.

As this match began, like all Djokovic matches, I felt somewhat detached. The tennis analyst in me thought Djokovic would not be able to hold up against a primed Nadal coming off yet another French Open victory.

Then Novak came out playing divine tennis; when Djokovic is hitting the ball cleanly there’s simply nothing to do. There’s no doubt that part of this craziness is I’m drawn to Djokovic’s remarkable game. He cannot serve through opponents. He cannot blitz them with laser shots.

Instead, he beats people by becoming their nightmare, by transforming himself into whatever they most fear. If you are a big server, he’s the best returner who ever lived. If you have a big forehand, he will hit the ball to your forehand again and again — chasing down what would be winners against anyone else — until you punch yourself out. If you love to come to the net, he will pass you. If you want to stay back and play defense, he will run you and run you and never miss.

For instance, Nadal’s serve has improved immensely for this Wimbledon; he dominated opponents for the first week and a half with that serve. Against Novak, that serve, no matter how well he hit it, came back skidding at his feet. Shots Nadal hit that would be winners against anyone else not only came back but came back with purpose. Djokovic won the first set quickly and without complications.

Then, you could see doubt creeping into Djokovic’s game. This is Nadal’s great gift; if he sees just the slightest opening, the slightest crack, he goes after it with a fury unmatched in the tennis world. Novak was still hitting the ball beautifully, but in the big points he cracked. In all, he would only covert four of 19 break points, a testament to both Nadal’s resolve and Djokovic’s nerves. After missing an easy one in that second set, Novak slammed his foot with the racket three times and shouted out in agony.

And by that point, I was completely gone.

“Come on Novak!” I screamed for the 20th time, and there would be another 50 to come. Why do I care so much about this guy? Nadal won the second set, coming back from a 0-40 in the deciding game. Djokovic won the third set tiebreaker as the Friday curfew was called at Wimbledon. Nadal smashed through Djokovic in the fourth set on Saturday.

And then came the fifth set, and it was all out there, exposed, raw, boiled down to its very essence. You can say this about Djokovic: He is utterly and blatantly human. They’re all human, obviously, but Nadal sometimes seems like the Terminator, he’s so focused, so driven, so committed, he will play to the death. Federer seems too perfect sometimes, like a color-coordinated Greek God send down from Olympus to inspire the world with his tennis.

But Djokovic — his mortality is always on display. He misses easy shots and smiles wryly as if to say, “Well, of course I missed that.” He gets into a rut, and he screams at his coaches. He rolls his eyes. He complains to the heavens. He says dumb stuff. He berates himself continuously. Every so often, when his opponent hits a great shot, he stops to applaud. Every so often, when he does something particularly brilliant, he raises his arms to the crowd as if to say, “Are you not entertained!” “Novak’s a complicated guy,” ESPN’s Chris Fowler said at one point, and that’s exactly right, he is complicated but he’s never indifferent.

The fifth set with Nadal was awesomeness and tenacity and high wire tension. Nadal played better for most of it. He had his chances, three or four of them, to break Djokovic and surely take the match. But in those moments, somehow, some way, Novak came through. Sometimes, he looked dead on his feet. But he came through still.

In the 18th game of the fifth set, the 59th game overall (not including a tiebreaker), after Djokovic and Nadal had sprinted four or so miles each, after each had hit exactly 73 winners and made exactly 42 unforced errors, it was the unbreakable Nadal who broke. Djokovic was so tired after winning the match — tired from the match and tired from the two-year climb back — that he hardly celebrated. He did cry.

Sunday’s final was something of a letdown; Kevin Anderson was in his first Wimbledon final, and he was drained from that and the 21-plus hours he had spent on the court. Anderson was game after getting blitzed the first two sets; he played a competitive and inspired third set. But Djokovic won that set too. Djokovic won was his fourth Wimbledon title, his 13th grand slam title. His wife and son watched happily as he held the Wimbledon trophy over his head. I watched happily too. In the end, I don’t get why Novak Djokovic of all people has gotten inside me. Sports, man. You never know about sports.