What makes Novak Djokovic great? Shots, yes, but also mind

Sep 9, 2021, 1:03 AM | Updated: 1:12 pm

NEW YORK (AP) — Ask other tennis players what makes Novak Djokovic great, what has pushed him to the brink of the first calendar-year Grand Slam by a man in more than a half-century, and the responses might include a mention of the way he returns serves or his ability to cover the court or his two-handed backhand.

And so on.

What they also invariably praise are his mental strength and physical stamina, his focus and his fitness, especially when it comes to the best-of-five-set format used at the major tournaments where he is 26-0 in 2021 heading into his U.S. Open semifinal against Tokyo Olympics gold medalist Alexander Zverev on Friday.

Just a sampling of assessments from male and female pros:

— Sam Querrey: “His best trait is his mind.”

— Maria Sakkari: “Novak is from a different planet. Really. I mean, the way he plays, and the way he sees, tennis (is) like no one else.”

— Steve Johnson: “His belief is so high.”

— Dusan Lajovic: “The persistence and level of consistency that he has is just unquestionably his biggest weapon.”

— Jessica Pegula: “I don’t see any weaknesses. We’ve seen him cruise through tournaments. We’ve seen him come from behind and get himself out of situations. He seems to conserve his energy and know when to turn it up.”

The latest to stand across the net from Djokovic was No. 6 seed Matteo Berrettini of Italy in the U.S. Open quarterfinals.

Like Djokovic’s previous two opponents at Flushing Meadows, Berrettini grabbed the 77-minute opening set. Like in Djokovic’s previous two matches — and six others at Slams this season when he dropped one or two sets to start — he won, as Berrettini faded to a 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 defeat.

It brought to mind what former player Andy Roddick, the 2003 U.S. Open champion who went 5-4 against Djokovic from 2007-12 when their careers overlapped, tweeted a couple of days earlier: “First he takes your legs ……. Then he takes your soul.”

So which is tougher to overcome against Djokovic, the prowess of his body or his mind?

“A little bit of both. Even if you see him get flustered, he can get … in his zone. That’s something that, over time, he’s created. You feel that from the other side of the net,” Berrettini said. “From a physical standpoint, I feel like I can play at a high level, but it almost seems like he doesn’t get fatigued. It’s kind of like he says, ‘OK, bring it. Tired? I can stay here for three or four days.’ That’s the sensation.”

Berrettini is all too familiar with that sensation.

He also took the first set on the way to a four-set loss in the Wimbledon final in July, which followed Djokovic’s triumphs at the Australian Open in February and the French Open in June.

“You need to keep up that physical and mental intensity that we had in the first set for four or five sets. That’s the key. It’s not a given that you can’t do that, but no one in the world has managed to,” Berrettini said, then added with a chuckle: “There are 8 billion of us, and no one has done it.”

Now it’s Zverev’s turn to try.

He enters Friday on a 16-match winning streak, including coming back from a set and a break down to upset Djokovic 1-6, 6-3, 6-1 in the semifinals of the Summer Games on July 30.

“I feel like I was the first player to beat him in a very big match this year. That does give you something,” said Zverev, who lost in the 2020 U.S. Open final to Dominic Thiem.

One not-so-insignificant difference between that Olympic match and what awaits Friday: The contest in Japan was best-of-three-sets.

The longer format, everyone agrees, favors Djokovic.

Which is at least part of the reason that if the 34-year-old from Serbia can win against Zverev and win again in the final — where the foe would be No. 2 Daniil Medvedev or No. 12 Felix Auger-Aliassime — Djokovic would become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to collect all four major singles tennis championships in one year.

Such a feat requires excellence in match after match, over month after month, on hard courts, clay courts and grass courts, against players of various size and skill.

So how does Djokovic explain what he’s been able to do?

“I’ve worked over the years to perfect my game so that my game can have literally no flaws. Every player has some weaknesses in his game. There’s always something you can improve. I want to have as complete of an all-around game as I possibly can, so that when I’m playing someone, I can adjust on any surface, I can come up with different styles of play, I can tactically implement the game that I need for that particular match in order to win,” he said.

“Of course, I want my opponents to feel that I can get any ball, that I can play comfortably from back of the court, (at) the net, serving, returning,” Djokovic continued. “Over the years, working on perfecting the game has really helped me, I think, just be very adaptable to anybody’s game and to any surface.”


More AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Associated Press

Baffert: 2-year Churchill Downs suspension hurt reputation

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Churchill Downs never gave advance notice nor reached out to explain its two-year suspension, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said Friday in federal court, and reiterated that the penalty has caused irreparable harm to his business and reputation. The Hall of Fame trainer has sued the historic track and is […]
15 hours ago
FILE - United States Rosey Fletcher clears a gate during the women's snowboard parallel giant slalo...
Associated Press

Snowboarders sue coach, USOPC in assault, harassment case

Olympic bronze medalist Rosey Fletcher has filed a lawsuit accusing former snowboard coach Peter Foley of sexually assaulting, harassing and intimidating members of his team for years, while the organizations overseeing the team did nothing to stop it. Fletcher is a plaintiff in one of two lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles […]
15 hours ago
A person gambles as betting odds for NFL football's Super Bowl are displayed on monitors at the Cir...
Associated Press

Super Bowl prop betting increasing in popularity

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Jay Kornegay was behind the counter in 2004 when someone approached with $5,000 to bet on the Super Bowl but had no idea how to decide. The man, not a regular sports bettor, thought for a few moments and decided to put it all on the Carolina Panthers to score exactly […]
2 days ago
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the Security Council via a video ...
Associated Press

Column: IOC talks tough on Russia — until Paris on horizon

The IOC likes to talk tough — as long as it’s not heading into an Olympic year. Not surprisingly, as we draw ever closer to the cash cow that is Paris 2024, the hypocrites running the Olympic movement are eager to get Russia back in the games. They’ll surely find a way, despite Vladimir Putin’s […]
2 days ago
Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon (28) runs against Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Trent McD...
Associated Press

Menacing charge against Bengals’ Joe Mixon is dismissed

CINCINNATI (AP) — Bengals running back Joe Mixon no longer faces a misdemeanor charge of aggravated menacing over allegations that he threatened and pointed a gun at a woman in Cincinnati. A Friday order dismissing the case in Hamilton County Municipal Court said only that the city prosecutor’s office requested the dismissal “in the interest […]
2 days ago
FILE -  Brooklyn Nets' Kyrie Irving reacts during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game...
Associated Press

Nets’ Kyrie Irving requests trade, according to reports

NEW YORK (AP) — All-Star guard Kyrie Irving has asked the Brooklyn Nets for a trade, according to ESPN and The Athletic. Irving made the request after talks about a new contract did not go to his liking, the news outlets reported Friday. The NBA’s trade deadline is Thursday. The Nets — coming off a […]
2 days ago
What makes Novak Djokovic great? Shots, yes, but also mind