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Mastering his mind: Djokovic prepares

Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon on Day 12
by Vivienne Christie
Saturday 5 July 2014

Novak Djokovic was on top of the world as a Wimbledon men’s champion in 2011. Literally so, with his triumph over Rafael Nadal in the final propelling him to the top of the men’s rankings for the first time.

That summit suited the Serb, whose every history-making achievement only established a base for another one. With his superb talent matched by a natural charisma, the massive fan base galvanized and grew; media and sponsors were equally enchanted as the generous champion provided such goodwill.  

The wins kept coming, Djokovic finishing 2011 with victory in three of the four Grand Slams and a 70-6 match-winning record – those stunning numbers making it a season that many regard as the best of all time. 

If there could be a downside to such heights, it was expectation. The slightest shift seemed seismic when the Serb surrendered that top spot the following year. Inevitably, and in some cases painfully, the briefest lapses allowed his ‘Big Four’ colleagues an edge. Roger Federer became No.1 after his 2012 Wimbledon triumph and after Djokovic made a brief return to the top, the resurgent Rafael Nadal was leader by the following year.

The biggest disappointment occurred in the Grand Slams, the Serb finishing second best in the past three finals he’s contested.

“As a top player the last five, six, seven years, I've been facing these particular situations. And stress, you know, comes from different factors obviously. But pressure is part of what we do, it's part of our lives and our sport, and you have to deal with it,” reasoned Djokovic, noting that careers, just like matches, contain inescapable fluctuations.

“With the experience in some way you learn how to cope with the pressure … when you are younger sometimes you're careless and you go on the court and play the tennis without really thinking too much. When you get older, you start to think a little bit more.”

A dazzling competitor in 2011, the 27-year-old is arguably a more hardened one now. A businesslike demeanour has revealed itself on several occasions this Wimbledon, Djokovic tested in a four-set second round against Radek Stepanek and five sets in a quarter-final win over Marin Cilic. But finding his way through those tests has allowed the former champion to do exactly what’s required for success a second time around – play better as The Fortnight goes on.

“I know what's going on. Sometimes it just happens. It happens not just because you play a bad game but sometimes your opponent plays well,” he said after progressing to his third final at the All England Club. “Even though if you lose a set or two sets, you know, be able to bounce back and recover from that. I've done that, and that's a positive that I'm taking from these matches.”

As he navigates the mental challenges at Wimbledon, Djokovic has managed some physical ones too. There was a scare in the third round against Gilles Simon, when a heavy fall required treatment for a left shoulder injury and many tumbles in a four-set win over Grigor Dimitrov in the semi-finals.

But there’s a sense that not terribly much will stop the determined Djokovic from arresting a trend of finishing runner-up in recent majors. “Losing three out of four last Grand Slam finals, it cannot be satisfying,” he said. “I don't want to sound like I'm not appreciating to play finals of Grand Slam. It's already a huge result. We cannot take that for granted.

“But, again, I know that I can win the title. I should have won few matches that I lost in finals of Grand Slams in last couple years ... It's mental in the end of the day. You have to be able to be in the top of your game, mentally fresh and motivated, calm and composed. Things have to come together for you to win a Grand Slam.”

Djokovic is well aware of the components that will be required in the high-stakes meeting with Federer, the winner of 18 of the 34 matches they’ve contested. This final will mark only their second at a Grand Slam and their first major match since Wimbledon 2012.

“We played so many times in semi-finals and finals of Grand Slams, different surfaces, big matches over the years. They were very exciting,” Djokovic said ahead of the final. “Most of the matches we play against each other went the distance. So I'm going to be, of course, physically ready and fit to go the distance this time. Of course, there is plenty of motivation from my side to win this Grand Slam final after losing last three out of four.

“Of course, I want to try to, you know, get the title. It would mean a lot mentally for me.”

The two men have taken divergent paths this Wimbledon, Djokovic spending close to five hours more on court than Federer, a straight-sets winner in all but one of six matches so far. Come the final, however, the two will share the most important objective. “You know, I'm sure that he wants to win this title as much as I do,” Djokovic said.

If nothing else, those recent Grand Slam losses have been character building – not that Djokovic has ever been lacking in that department. Last week at Wimbledon, he was asked what tennis ‘next big things’ could learn from already-established champions like himself.

“As they climb the rankings ladder, they will also encounter a lot of pressure, expectations from the media, from the people,” said Djokovic, a man who has clearly learned form that experience.

“It's not any more about them being tennis players, it's about them being complete personalities who represent this sport,” he said, pointing to an essential awareness to give 100 percent in every on or off court appearance.

“I believe there is this responsibility of respecting your opponents, respecting everybody, respecting the sport, respecting and being grateful for the opportunity to be there. I think, in my eyes, that's essential for anybody who is at the top.”

It’s the most pleasing outlook as Djokovic prepares for another potential high in an already-stunning stunning career. Should he triumph against Federer to claim a second Wimbledon title, Djokovic will once again be on top of the world.

Literally so, as world No.1.

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