Zivojinovic: Novak’s greatest weapon is his mind

September 26, 2014

SThe Davis Cup, where the pride of playing for the country is the overriding sentiment, has done different things to different players.

On Dec. 5, 2010, it transformed Serbian player Novak Djokovic’s career. Djokovic guided his team to the historic title victory against France on home turf in Belgrade. And from there began the fourth-longest winning streak in the Open Era. Djokovic went on to win 43 matches on the trot, going back to the Davis Cup final.

What changed in Novak Djokovic? “The Davis Cup victory helped Novak throw out all the dirty tennis aspects from his game,” said Bogdan Obradovic, who was the non-playing captain of the Davis Cup-winning Serbian team in 2010. “All the doubts and negativity were washed away from his mind. The victory triggered that confidence in him where he started believing he can be the champion player he always wanted to be.”

The Serbian team began playing in the Davis Cup under the name of Serbia only in June 2006. To inspire his team, representing a tiny nation of 7 million people, to win the most coveted team event in tennis was monumental. The immensity of the achievement can be measured from the fact that Roger Federer, perhaps the finest tennis player of all times, is yet to do it for his country, Switzerland.

It must have been life-defining. “I always felt Novak’s greatest weapon is his mind. But winning Davis Cup is a kind of achievement which gives you the confidence and self-belief that you can achieve anything,” said Slobodan Zivojinovic, who was president of the Serbian tennis federation when the team lifted the Davis Cup trophy.

“Tennis is about confidence. The Davis Cup victory completely opened Novak’s mind and he began playing his game with the kind of freedom he hadn’t known before and that brought the difference in him. It made him more hungry as a player,” said Zivojinovic, on the sidelines of the India-Serbia Davis Cup tie at the KSLTA courts in Bangalore.

Then it was time to focus on reaching the top of ATP singles ranking. What started soon after were grueling training sessions designed to acquire physical and mental strength that could outlast both Rafael Nadal and Federer, the only two players who were in his way to achieve his childhood dream of becoming the world champion.

During the training, work began on his fitness, footwork and serve. And now focus also shifted toward diet. “The idea was to build muscle strength to such an extent that he could tire out any opponent in a match. Now his diet included more meat and other protein content,” said Bogdan.

The planning was meticulous as the road ahead was the most difficult – from world ranking of three to one.

“He’s a chess player; he plans his moves well in advance. He was nine when he first came, with his dad Srdjan, to the club in Belgrade where I was a coach. Without even having a word with me, he kept his bag on the sidelines of the court and went for jogging and stretching exercise. Little later, he told me he was ready to go on to court for practice. And when he opened his bag, I was impressed to see that everything was kept neatly. He had extra pair of shoes, socks, shirts and racquets. It was rare to see a nine-year-old to be so organized,” said Bogdan.

The planning and hard work showed results in 2011. Djokovic was a different player now and he started the year in a sensational fashion, winning the first seven tournaments he entered (Australian Open, Dubai, Indian Wells, Miami, Belgrade, Madrid and Rome). He compiled a 41-match winning streak. His incredible run ended with the semi-final loss to Federer at Roland Garros. It was the longest winning streak to begin a season since the legendary John McEnroe’s 42 in 1984.

The Roland Garros defeat was a momentary lapse. He finished the year with 10 ATP titles in 11 finals, including three Major titles (Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open). In the process, he achieved 70-6 win-loss match record and an all-time men’s record in prize money in a calendar year – a whopping $12.6 million.

Even though Djokovic has remained a top three player ever since, currently top-ranked, he hasn’t quite dominated the opposition in a similar fashion.

The last hardcourt season has been particularly indifferent by his standard, losing to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Toronto and to Tommy Robredo at Cincinnati, before losing to Kei Nishikori in the US Open semi-final.

“It’s difficult to sustain that kind of intensity and hunger for long,” said Zivojinovic, himself ’86 Wimbledon singles semi-finalist and former World no. 1 doubles player. “He doesn’t seem to be that hungry this season.”

Bogdan was more forthcoming. “A lot has been happening in his personal life. He got married last July and is now expecting his first child in couple of months. Isn’t it normal to get affected by these important life events? Federer is one player who has handled it fairly well in the past. Let’s see how Novak handles it.”

May be Djokovic needs another Davis Cup victory to reignite that hunger in him.

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