U.S OPEN: Djokovic Still Wanting What Federer Has. One Intense Way to Get it

Novak Djokovic at the French Open

Novak Djokovic at the French Open

By Greg Couch

Novak Djokovic thinks he has done all he can. But he hasn’t. He has beaten Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the biggest matches at the most important places. He has passed them both as the No. 1 player. But it isn’t enogh. He does not have their spot in history.

And he doesn’t know why. Here’s why: It’s an attitude, an aura, a presence. Djokovic hasn’t shown it, or maybe he doesn’t have it. We’ll see Sunday. This is his chance. In Sunday’s U.S. Open final against Federer, there is a direct path between Djokovic and the spot in history that he craves. I hope he sees it because that path is on a line, about 125 mph. . .

Right into Roger Federer’s chest. If Djokovic doesn’t see this, then he’s destined to always be just The Other Guy. That said, I’m predicting here that he sees it, or that coach Boris Becker has told him. This is to predict intense fireworks and controversy today and ESPN debate.

This is to predict that when Federer does his little SABR move — Sneak Attack By Roger — and charges forward to the service box during Djokovic’ serve, Djokovic is going to muscle up and pound his serve right at Federer. He’s going to hit Tennis God with a power serve, and people will be outraged at Djokovic for what they’ll see as pettiness and a lack of sportsmanship.

It will be neither of those things. He absolutely, positively has to do it. He cannot buckle under in excessive respect to Federer. People find Federer’s SABR to be a cute and fun tactic. What it actually is is an insult to the person serving. It is Federer putting his thumbs in his ears and sticking his tongue out at his opponent.

It is Federer saying “Yes, I know you think you have control and power of the moment right now with your serve, but I can run right up to the box you’re hitting into and handle it. No problem.”

It is Federer daring Djokovic: You don’t want me up here? Then do something about it.

Just hit him, Novak. Don’t even bother putting your serve in the box. Pound it right at Roger, and then when he stares across the net at you for having the audacity, glare right back at him.

Do it twice. That, plus a win, will lift you to where you want to go.

This U.S. Open was all about Serena Williams making history. She didn’t win the Grand Slam. But while no one is talking about it, now it’s Djokovic’ turn. The focus is on Federer today, as it should be. He has finally, finally switched from his antique racquet, gotten used to it and started to use the power it brings. The old one was just like Sampras’ from a different time, flexible. It allowed people to push him backward. Now, the modern racquet allows him to attack.

Tennis is more than just angles. It is about power and controlling turf, or asphalt, anyway. But it’s also about mind games. There are so many little games going on during a match. And Federer’s SABR — he steps into the court, charges forward and takes the return of serve basically on a short-hop off his shoes, then takes two or three steps to the net — is all of the above.

He is moving in on the court and in your mind. And he’s stealing your angles; you can’t slice your serve out wide because he has cut off the angle.

The truth is, Becker sees this for sure and is already trying to fight back. He said in his recent autobiography that Federer and Djokovic “don’t particularly like each other.” And last week, he told Sky Sports this about SABR:

“If he (Federer) would have played a McEnroe, Connors, Lendl or even me, we would have said, `Roger, in all honesty, I like you very much. I’ll go straight at you.’ In my generation, guys would not have accepted as it is now. It’s almost disrespecting the other guy’s serve.”

It’s more than that. The serve is the power and control moment of any point. It’s when you can throw your knockout punch. SABR is a challenge to your strength, frankly. Even your manhood.

To be clear, I don’t blame Federer for doing it. I blame everyone else for not stopping him. He should keep doing it. In fact, it has brought him back to the point where he might be the best player in the world again

But Djokovic and Andy Murray have weak second serves. By moving in, it pressures them to go for more than they want. Federer beat both players in Cincinnati a few weeks ago.

This isn’t just tactical, though. By driling Federer with a serve, Djokovic will be going after Federer in a way, and no one else, ever has. It will help him to win the match, but it also will change the view of him in history.

So far, he hasn’t shown McEnroe’s fire or Borg’s ice. He hasn’t shown Connors’ angry fight, Sampras’ intimidation, Agassi’s or Nadal’s flair.

Federer”s perfection.

Djokovic is a skinny guy who is flexible and runs all over the place, hits amazing angles and never gives in. That’s how he got to No. 1.

If he wins today, his 10th majors title, and drills Federer, the controversy Wilbon and Kornheiser, Skip and Stephen A. talk about tomorrow will take him to the mountaintop.

About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

One response to “U.S OPEN: Djokovic Still Wanting What Federer Has. One Intense Way to Get it

  • mat4

    Dear Greg,

    I am sorry you don’t write as much as you did on this blog, although I don’t agree with you most of the time. Because, so far Djokovic has shown more than fight than Connors, more ice than Borg, and certainly more flair than Nadal, who has no flair whatsoever.

    Challenged at his peak by Borg, Connors just folded. He was only 26, but he couldn’t be the Swede when it mattered. He had a few wins late in Borg’s career, in exhos, mostly in 1982 and 1983.

    McEnroe’s fire? What does it mean? Since when arguing with umpires is “fire”? How do you compare JMac’s “fire”, who played a tennis from another epoch, with Novak’s “fire” in contemporary tennis?

    Novak was the guy that destroyed Rafa, fundamentally, in the deepest part of Rafa’s psyche. The DR (a stat you can find on tennisabstract.com) shows that since Becker started working with Djokovic, with an improved serve and transition game, the difference in points won per match is bigger and bigger. Rafa can’t reset the rally any more, he’s martyred on his serve and he can’t do much against Novak serve. Their epic battle deserves an article, but I hope you will check stats and not forget to mention Rafa’s gamesmanship and his will to win at all cost — although you’re a Rafa’s fan. Numbers are easy to find, numbers that reveals how Rafa ducked his opponents (http://secondserb.blogspot.rs/2015/06/why-nadal-leads-h2h-stats.html), others stats will show how he effectively used time between points to throw the player returning out of his rhythm (check on tennisabstract.com, please), etc. But Novak overcome it. Because he had fire, and flair, and angry fight in himself.

    The guy came from nowhere, with no WC to help him rise easily in the rankings, hit the Fedal wall, and like the Mongols destroyed that wall. His legacy is quite safe, at the very top of the game.

    I like your articles very much, but sometimes you exaggerate with stylistic figures void of substance. You are quite original and refreshing, but too biased, although we are all biased.

    Rafa’s flair… LOL.

    I hope you will post more often on this blog again. Truly enjoy your posts, because you write with passion.

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