Tennis Betting: Why Nole is tops
Djokovic's victory in the Australian Open was supposed to spell an end to the recent duopoly imposed on the sport by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal...
Mean, lean, winning machine Novak Djokovic worked hard to make it to the very top, and Romilly Evans has little doubt that he's far from being done just yet.
January is traditionally a signpost for closing the door on old bad habits and opening the gate to pastures greener. Back in January 2008, Novak Djokovic certainly hoped so. And the tennis world certainly thought so.
Djokovic's victory in the Australian Open was supposed to spell an end to the recent duopoly imposed on the sport by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal (who had snaffled the previous 11 slams). He had come of age in style too, dropping just one set in the entire tournament and drubbing the defending champ, Federer, in straight semi-final sets. "The Serbinator" had fashioned a game which combined the best features of his two rivals - the consistent and powerful groundstrokes of Nadal melding with Federer's natural balance and athleticism.
However, rather than chart a new line on the graph of greatness, Djokovic's breakthrough soon began to resemble an erroneous point. Nadal and Federer immediately resumed their grand-slam rivalry, taking 10 of the next 11 majors up to 2011. Djokovic, for his part, fell into relative decline. Climbing the mountain is one thing. Staying there is another. At this dizzy altitude, the air's pretty thin - only true champions can acclimatise to breathing it in.
Oxygen intake quite literally seemed to be an issue for Djokovic, as breathing difficulties in extreme heat also began to become a factor in some of his matches. One moment he was scuttling about like a mouse, the next he looked in severe need of a catnap. These bouts of exhaustion (initially attributed to nasal respiratory issues) saw him default from some high-profile encounters and earn a reputation for "playing possum". Always a popular and playful member of the Tour's locker room, Djokovic started to hear snipes that he was faking it or, worse still, suffered from psychological frailties.
Meanwhile, his supporters were nervously holding their own breath over his erratic serving arm. Double-faults were creeping into a once bomb-proof action and a switch of rackets (from Wilson to Head) at the end of 2008 only appeared to hasten this slide. Cynics suggested that Novak had compromised his game in a sell-out contract deal, but the player himself maintained he had done it to embrace lighter equipment which would ultimately add more power to his tennis elbow.
Performance didn't back this up, however, even if his results masked it to some degree. He won in Dubai on a weak second serve and a peerless returning game. But while his attitude and ability were keeping him just inside the world's top four, prospects of further grand slam victory were fading from sight. Especially when Djokovic finally admitted the glaring truth that his shoulder was causing him pain.
Even his close relationship with coach Marian Vajda had become strained. And towards the end of 2009, Djokovic sought specific serving advice from the towering Todd Martin in an attempt to change his technique in a way that would reduce stress on the shoulder. It was an experiment which both quickly agreed would never work. Martin proposed a wholesale change to Djokovic's motion which did more harm than good. Their mutual realisation was that his ingrained patterns could only be tweaked, and so Djokovic moved back under the exclusive tutelage of Vajda. Although this time, Star Wars fans, there was to be no return to the dark side.
The pair resolved to focus on Djokovic's physicality, building muscle mass and improving his fitness levels. Never again would Nadal effortlessly outlast him simply by staying out on the court, waiting for his opponent's inevitable breakdown. Easier said than done. But having jettisoned Martin, his 2010 results did begin to improve.
Djokovic reached the semi-finals of Wimbledon and then triumphed in an historic match at the US Open semis, where he staved off two match points against Federer, before going on to lose to Nadal in the final. His season of rehabilitation climaxed at the David Cup Final, where he led Serbia to homeland glory. In so doing, he proved that he could match expectation with exquisite stroke-production, predicated on a serve that had regained its status as a weapon.
Perhaps the final piece in the jigsaw of recovery was the belated discovery that Djokovic suffers from acute wheat intolerance. Particularly surprising for a man who grew up playing tennis on a court at the back of his own father's pizza joint. Once diagnosed and put on a gluten-free diet, the player was amazed at how much stronger and quicker he felt and he was accordingly able to ramp up his fitness once more.
With all his ducks in a row, Djokovic embarked on his landmark season of 2011 in which he won 41 straight matches, three of the four slams, five Masters Series titles and duly claimed the number one ranking. Perhaps more significantly, he beat Nadal in six of those finals on three different surfaces playing, as Rafa himself described it, "probably the highest level of tennis I've ever seen."
That run of top-flight success has continued this term, outstripping Rafa in five sets for another Aussie Open title, before the Spaniard finally restored some parity with consecutive victories on the clay-court swing. But even in his signature event at Roland Garros, Nadal struggled to curb the Serb. Indeed, but for a fourth-set rain delay which allowed Nadal to regroup for battle on the following day, we could have been set for another fifth set coin-toss between the major players in the game's latest duopoly.
But with Wimbledon looming and after almost a year in tennis' top job, the market is in no doubt that Djokovic remains the favourite, available @ Betfair odds of (2.82), to retain his title on the lawns on SW19. They say it's darkest before the dawn, but the opposite is true if it's a false dawn. Djokovic has battled through his night-terrors and emerged a stronger player.
There's no reason why the sun won't continue to shine on him for a good while yet.