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.
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.