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Novak’s Quest

I tend to be very wordy on this blog, especially when talking about my favorite athlete, Novak Djokovic. But today I have a thought that won’t leave my mind, and I feel like shouting it from the rooftops. Hopefully it won’t be quite as wordy as usual! Here goes:

Novak Djokovic does not need to win Roland Garros this year. He WILL win it before he retires.

This, of course, is opinion, not fact. I could be wrong. But deep down, I don’t think I am.

Just look at his career. Need I remind you that he came of tennis age in the era of arguably the two greatest tennis players of all time? And he wasn’t alone, either. He had with him the Jo-Wilfried Tsongas and the Tomas Berdychs and the Richard Gasquets and even the Andy Murrays and Stan Wawrinkas. All of these players are just as talented as Novak. But only two of these have won Slam titles, and even they have won not nearly as many as has Novak.

All of these men, aside from Novak, Stan, and Andy, would probably say, “Well, I was unfortunate to play during the era of the greatest of all time.” (And it could be argued that Stan felt this way at first and was able to successfully overcome it as well.) But only one mounted his own challenge and achieved what many probably thought was impossible: achieving the #1 ranking in the Fedal era.

Novak’s career is all the more impressive when you see that he has actually needed to mount new challenges three times already. The first challenge was to win his first Slam title, which he did as a 20-year-old in 2008. The second challenge was to achieve the number one ranking (and win another Slam, and win Slams other than the Australian Open), which he did in 2011. The third challenge was to regain his mental edge and start winning Slam finals again, after a painful series of finals losses, which he was able to do in a very big way in 2015.

Is it possible that Roland Garros is just the kind of challenge that Novak must feel excited to overcome? I think that’s very possible. Because one characteristic that has typified Novak’s career is his determination. When he faces an obstacle, he is willing to do whatever he can to overcome it.

I don’t really know what took Novak from US Open finalist in 2007 to Australian Open champion in 2008. It could have been as easy as “my time has come,” but I doubt that, especially considering that Novak had to take out Roger Federer (his conqueror in New York, don’t forget) in order to win that championship. I think it’s more likely that Novak just needed to climb over that barrier of belief, to become fully confident that he really could defeat the mighty Fed.

We all know, of course, what led to Novak’s glorious 2011; the one-two punch of a whole new diet (expunged of troublesome gluten, among other things) and a new confidence borne of his assistance in winning Davis Cup for Serbia at the end of 2010. It sounds easy enough in retrospect — change your diet, regain a winning edge — but if you’ve ever tried to lose weight, or had to cut an allergen from your diet, or had to change your diet for some other reason, you know that it isn’t the easiest thing to do. I imagine that for someone who has to travel the way Novak does, it would be even more challenging.

Then there was the next couple of years, when Novak won a Slam a year but missed out on a whole lot of other Slams in which he reached finals (or, at the least, semifinals) but couldn’t seem to claim the big prize. He lost his #1 ranking a few times (once to Federer, once to Nadal), but overall he was #1 more than he wasn’t. When he hired Boris Becker at the end of 2013, a lot of fans and experts couldn’t understand why. There seemed to be nothing wrong with his game, he was still winning Slams and reaching finals… why would he make a change?

The reason is because Novak is a perfectionist. His career results had shown him that he could overcome any obstacle. And he wasn’t satisfied with being #1 a lot of the time and winning a Slam a year. He thought he could do more and win more. He believed he had ceded mental ground in losing so many Slam finals, and he was willing to do whatever he could to change that. So hiring Boris, as we all now know, had to do with regaining his mental edge.

What does all this have to do with Roland Garros? A couple of things. Number one, in my opinion it goes against a rapidly spreading assumption that Novak will “never have a better chance” to win it than this year, what with Nadal out of the tournament. I actually think Novak might have had a better chance of winning, had Nadal been in it still, because he would have been ready to mount the challenge of beating the King of Clay.

(I’m not saying Novak has no chance of winning this year, of course. Just that Novak seems to be at his toughest when he feels the challenge is greatest.)

Number two is related. Novak’s path may seem easier with Rafa out of the tournament, but the idea that Novak will never win it if he doesn’t win it this year is ludicrous. Is Novak suddenly going to become terrible on clay? Is Novak going to give up trying to win RG if he doesn’t win it this year? No, and no. Yes, Novak is getting older, and yes, traditionally he is approaching that magical age in which male tennis players find it very difficult to win Slams. But Novak has proven he is not the typical male tennis player, in many ways. He is determined, focused, a perfectionist. He takes scrupulous care of his body and has done a decent (to say the least) job of staying fit and healthy.

All this is to say that there is no Novak quite so dangerous than a Novak on a quest. And I cannot imagine Novak Djokovic retiring without having achieved a quest that he set his mind and soul and body into achieving. And that is why I believe that Novak Djokovic will win Roland Garros… someday.

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