|True Grit: Novak exults after winning a match at the World Tour Finals in London|
Novak Djokovic has cemented his place as the most consistent player in world tennis
At the end of the 2010 season, everyone was speculating whether Rafael Nadal, the world No 1 who had won three straight Grand Slams to bring his tally to 10, could go on to complete the non-calendar Slam and more importantly challenge Roger Federer's then record of 16 the following year.
On the flip side, fans of Federer were hoping that he could extend his record and stop the Spanish Bull from getting within striking distance.
Not many had thought that Serbia's Novak Djokovic, who had won the Australian Open in 2008, could put up a serious challenge to the Swiss-Spanish duopoly.
2011 was the season where Djokovic eventually came of age and put his two more famous compadres in the shade. He displayed mental toughness and physical ability to such an extent that one had to pinch oneself in disbelief – 3 Grand Slam titles; 5 Masters 1000 tournament wins; a 70-6 win-loss record; the world No 1 ranking!
Given that it's incredibly hard to repeat an almost perfect season, all eyes were on the Serb in 2012. How would he thwart the challenge of Federer, Nadal and the ever-improving Andy Murray? Could he actually succeed in doing so?
Now that this season has come to an end, that query has been answered aptly. Djokovic finished as the year-end No 1 for the second straight year. If 2011 was about him soaring over the field, 2012 showed him fighting tooth-and-nail to defend his kingdom.
He successfully defended his Australian Open title over five sets in a marathon 5h 53min win over Nadal, fell in four sets to the Spaniard in the French Open final, at Wimbledon he lost to eventual winner Federer in four sets in the semifinal and was unable to hang on to his US Open title, losing to Murray in a five-set final.
It's true that for the first time since 2003, each Slam has a different champion, an occurrence that according to most pundits suggests a sense of parity in the men's game.
But even so, Djokovic has managed to cling onto the No 1 ranking adhering to a simple yet difficult process – consistency. The Serb plays a brand of tennis that is characterised by impenetrable defense, water-tight returns and heavy top-spin groundstrokes.
This doesn't mean that his offence is second-rate. Nobody in the men's game reaches the top spot if their offence is anything less than extraordinary. Djokovic's ability to retrieve and keep points alive allows him to open up and go for broke on his shots off either wing. Plus he now has such self-confidence that even in crunch situations there seems to be no hesitation on his part to play to win as opposed to playing to draw errors from opponents.
His serve, once unreliable as a result of too much tinkering, is now a weapon, allowing him to get out of sticky situations with a single strike. The forehand, always a powerful shot, was not stable enough to trouble the big guns consistently, but now it is steady and delivers deep shots that are akin to body blows. Added to that, he has developed a good volley and knows when to move forward.
Along with these improvements, he has also continually sharpened his strengths – a rapier-like backhand, perfectly-guided returns, a circus performer’s agility and a never-ending commitment to getting the ball back in play.
There is no doubt that he has worked extremely hard to get all of these things working in machine-like order, but his biggest weapon has to be his belief. That is one thing that cannot be faked. Look at his eyes when a big point is played. They have a veritable fire burning in them.
That is the mark of a champion!
(Published in The Sunday Standard and The New Indian Express with some minor alterations)