Is Djokovic a more complete player than Federer?

Novak Djokovic.

I was just watching highlights of his recent Davis Cup rubber over Sam Querrey of USA. In the second game, Djokovic rolled his right ankle severely to the point where it was nearly a 90 degree angle between his leg and foot. Despite excruciating pain, he managed to not only win the first set 7-5, hold set points in the second, but actually raised his level and dominated Querrey 6-1, 6-0 in the next two sets. Such a far cry from the Djoker who’d retire as soon as the mercury hit 32 degrees.

This got me thinking. I have to say that this is the most remarkable metamorphosis I have ever seen in tennis (despite my relatively young age)  since Roger Federer himself transformed from an inconsistent, brilliantly talented contender into the leading candidate for the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT).

Federer, in my eyes, is the most gifted all-round player I have ever seen in terms of aesthetic quality, hand-eye coordination, kinaesthetic awareness, creative shot making in all departments, the marriage of traditional and modern style of play and his ease of effortless output. The results speak for themselves. But we all know of the mental price tag that is demanded in proportion to the talent inherent in the player and Federer is no exception. Whilst it would be grossly unfair to call Federer mentally weak in light of his incredible career consistency and clutch plays over the years in the biggest situations possible in tennis, there are obvious frailties that have been laid bare by Nadal and even Djokovic.

Let’s look at Djokovic and the qualities he possesses:

Extremely durable physically and ability to play punishing 5-set matches back to back

Djokovic's incredible physicality
Djokovic’s incredible physicality (I do not own the rights to this photo)

? Check.

Outstanding mental fortitude? Check.

Tactically astute? Check.

Rock-solid technical fundamentals and biomechanics? Check.

Exceptional court coverage? Check.

Excels in defence and attack? Check.

Able to create and capitalise on opportunities at the net? Check.

Actively improving? Check.

Performs at the highest level on the biggest stages time and time again? Check.

Displays leadership qualities above and beyond what is required i.e. Davis Cup? Check.

He may not be the most aesthetically appealing player i.e. Federer or the most awe-inspiring player i.e. Nadal but right here, right now, he is the deadliest.

Everything you’d need in the modern prototype of today’s player, Djokovic has in spades: exceptional court coverage, astute court positioning, a strong and accurate first serve and an ever-improving second serve, sound net instincts, variety, power, touch off both groundstroke wings, the ability to play first-strike tennis buttressed by an ironclad mental fortress inside his head.

Whilst detractors may point to Federer as having the better hands and Nadal the bigger heart, I digress in two areas. Federer, for all his talent, has a major Achilles heel that has prevented him from becoming an even more complete player – volleying. He has stoned countless volleys of all kinds on crucial points over the years – low volleys, half-volleys, high volleys, sitting volleys, stretch volleys, drop volleys. Very rarely has Djokovic missed one on a crucial point due to his better net positioning, tactical understanding and willingness to treat every volley with the respect it deserves. He knows why and how to finish the point at the net and actually executes it.

Nadal may have built his career on his exceptional fighting qualities and physicality but Djokovic has matched and bested him in titanic matches on all surfaces. Nadal’s fighting qualities are often impotent in the face of Djokovic’s baseline supremacy and on the rare occasions where everything has been thrown at one another and it comes down to pure desire to win without fear, Djokovic has triumphed.

Nadal fights like a demon for fear of failure whereas Djokovic has absolute self-belief and confidence in his abilities in the most intense pressurised situations where only those who are unafraid to lose can win. He has the rare aura and ability to be both dangerous when behind in a match and be the most ruthless of champions when it comes to delivering the killer blow. Even Nadal himself says that if you give Djokovic an inch, he will take everything in a blink of an eye. The way Djokovic finished off Nadal in the 2011 US Open and 2012 Australian Open finals is evidence enough.

In rebuilding his serve into one of the most underrated weapons in the game and with his peerless service returns, he continues to actively seek improvement in his quest for destiny.

On a final note, from what I have seen, neither Federer or Nadal had the same depth of desire and self-belief that they would be No.1 that Djokovic did.

Federer had ambitions and dreams of being a good player and perhaps winning a Grand Slam, and was once advised by his father to aim for the Top 100 so that he could at least cover his expenses!

Nadal is too fatalistic in his attitude to profess such an attitude, with his work ethic and the incessant deliberate use of injustice in Toni’s coaching methods would have prevented any outward burning self-desire. If Nadal had had a coach other than Toni, I believe that he would not have become the fighter he is today.

Ever since Djokovic first laid eyes on a tennis court, he has possessed an unbridled fervent desire to be World No.1 and this is what separates him from every other tennis player on the planet today.

So do I think Djokovic is a more complete player than Federer?

Yes.

The magic elixir

Why is Djokovic flying so high right now? What is the one thing that is allowing him to look down upon all others from stratospheric heights? What is the magic elixir that keeps him from becoming the modern day Icarus?

One word – confidence. Not the fleeting, day-to-day, or even hour-to-hour flimsiness version. The tangible, rock hard, version that can only be achieved with a clear mind and accumulation of wisdom.  The difference between a talented player and a true champion.

Despite his inherent natural ability and formidable athleticism honed through years of backbreaking, mind-numbing practice and hundreds of mental battles fought in matchplay, there was always a seamlessness missing from Djokovic’s tennis despite a game that professed exactly that. From the ever-present familial influence in his players’ box, his frequent gasping for air after long rallies, his slumped shoulders and bowed head and to his sometimes violent verbal outbursts, Djokovic appeared to be a man who played for something or someone outside of himself and was drowning under that burden. He was playing not for himself but for Serbia.

Djokovic is a proud and patriotic citizen of his beloved Serbia to the point where he felt compelled to address a rally in Belgrade commenting on Kosovo’s declaration of independence. It was no secret that last year following the US Open and during the Masters Cup, his real focus was on the Davis Cup final against France as the implications of a triumph would be the makings of history.

In that fateful final, he stood tall. He swept aside Gilles Simon to level the tie for Serbia at 1-1. Then, facing a 2-1 deficit on the final day of singles, he rose to the occasion again dismantling Monfils in straight sets to set the stage for Troicki to seal the historic triumph. Not only had Djokovic spearheaded his country to their first ever Davis Cup win but in doing so, he cast off the Atlas-sized pressure of carrying his country and consolidated his confidence that he could perform under immense pressure in one go.

In short, he became a man who plays free of any mental or physical shackles. A man of true confidence.

We saw it with Roger Federer from the Tennis Masters Cup of 2003 to the Tennis Masters Cup of 2007 before his wings began to smoulder from the sun’s fierce heat and he was forced to retreat to a lower, less perilous height where he steadily circles today.

We saw it with Rafael Nadal in 2010 when he emerged reborn after his triumph at Monte Carlo which sparked his superhuman rampage through the history books to the point where he went supernova.

And so we see it today with Djokovic. It is apt that the latest Head commercial features Novak playing tennis on an old world biplane in the skies and his results show that he is still playing such audacious tennis in reality.

Win or lose against Nadal in the final of Miami, this time his confidence won’t desert him so easily.