Rooting for Roger, but learning to love Novak - NBC Sports

Rooting for Roger, but learning to love Novak
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July 7, 2014, 11:00 am

Roger Federer is easy. Anyone who has ever picked up a racket and clumsily faced the dimensions of a tennis court -- 78 feet long, 27 feet wide, that unrelenting net stretching to knock down shots -- cannot help but admire Federer.

Even those who root against Federer admire him because artistry is irresistible. Nobody can dislike EVERY Beatles song. There are too many of them, and they are too diverse and original and sweet and edgy. So it goes with Federer's game. How can you watch him -- the way he moves, that feather touch, the sportsmanship, the class, the inconceivable angles and hammer forehand -- and not love SOMETHING? Sure, Federer is easy to admire.

Rafael Nadal is easy too. He plays every point to the death, like a bullfighter, and his game is power and will and grunts. In an age of superheroes, he's tennis' Marvel character. Sometimes, in one of those five-set hand-to-hand combat matches that have become his trademark, he digs so deep that you expect to see him him to transform into something else, to see him burst into flames or have knives push out of his knuckles. Few athletes in the world give so much of themselves for us to see. Yes, Nadal is easy to love too.

Novak Djokovic, though, is not easy. Sunday, he played in the Wimbledon final for the second straight year. And for the second straight year, almost nobody wanted him to win. Last year, he faced Andy Murray and all of Great Britain in the final; he looked like the loneliest man in the world. Sunday, that loneliness was only slightly less pronounced -- this time he stood between Roger Federer and a golden moment, Fed's eighth Wimbledon title and crashing crescendo to his incomparable career. Nicklaus had that moment. Sampras had that moment. Elway had that moment. Who would begrudge the great Federer that moment? Rooting for Djokovic, in a way, was like rooting for time.

But even beyond the moment, Djokovic has been harder to appreciate. He does not glide like Federer. He does not growl like Nadal. In his moments of doubt -- and he seems to have more of those moments of doubt than just about anyone -- he does not exactly rage or hide behind a mask of calm. Instead, he kvetches and moans and looks up to his coach and family and gives them alternating looks of anguish and despair.

Let’s be blunt about it: In the age of Federer and Nadal he is tennis’ the third wheel, the one no one quite remembers inviting to the party. In the language of “Spinal Tap,” he is the lukewarm water between Federer's ice and Nadal's fire.

Point is, I'm not entirely sure why I found myself desperately rooting for Djokovic to win on Sunday.

* * *

I've always been a Fed guy because in my dreams I play tennis like Roger Federer. Doesn’t every scrub tennis player feel that way? In my dreams, I float six inches over the court, and I hit shots at angles that baffle mathematicians, and I spin dropshots so delicate they melt into the ground like snowflakes. When Federer achieved light speed sometime in the early-to-mid 2000s, he played such spiritual tennis that David Foster Wallace’s classic essay about him was called, “Federer as Religious Experience.”

Then Rafael Nadal came along and muscled Federer off tennis courts, and it hurt to see that, hurt in the same way that it hurt to find out that the Harlem Globetrotters were not actually unbeatable.

In time, we all came to admire Nadal's ferocious, all-heart game, too -- as mentioned above, it is all but impossible not to admire it -- and so their rivalry became like one of those Goldfinger-Bond, Skywalker-Vader, Wilt-Russell, Ali-Frazier, Potter-Voldemort things where you come away feeling both sides. Still, I was a Fed guy. When Nadal fell out of this Wimbledon -- grass seems to be his kryptonite lately -- and then Murray did, too, the first thing I saw was the path for Fed. Sunday morning, I settled in to cheer Federer and perhaps see him win his 18th grand slam championship and eighth Wimbledon. I could barely sleep in anticipation.

And Djokovic? Eh. Always liked the way he plays. Always appreciated the way he transforms his game for the occasion. I envy the two-handed backhand. He seems like a good guy too. I came to root for Fed.

When did that change? I'm not sure exactly. The match began, and from the beginning, the weapons were drawn. Federer had his extraordinary serve, his fluid movement and the crowd. Djokovic, meanwhile, unsheathed his perfect ground strokes. And, he also unleashed those strange demons that seem to follow him around.

Djokovic has always had those demons. Prodigies often do. He grew up in war-torn Serbia; one of his defining memories is being awakened by bombs. No one played tennis. He would say that he hit Wiffle balls against a wall with a rainbow colored racket to pass the time. But when he saw Pete Sampras win Wimbledon, he knew. He began to play with purpose. On the first day of a tennis camp, he showed up with a bag beautifully packed with racket, rolled up towel, wristbands, balls, water bottle.

“Who packed this for you?” the legendary Serbian tennis coach Jelena Gencic asked him in astonishment.

“I did,” the 6-year-old Novak said. The first time Gencic saw Djokovic play, she said he was the greatest talent she had seen since Monica Seles.

Gencic taught him the strokes and strategies. She taught him about music and poetry. She gave him a center as war raged around them. He would say she made him into the man he became. But the blazing movement and fierce competitiveness and hunger to become the best tennis player in the world, that all came from someplace inside. He reached the semifinal at all four grand slam championships before he turned 21, the youngest man ever to do so. He won the 2008 Australian Open; along the way he blitzed the seemingly invincible Federer in straight sets. Up to that point, Federer had reached 10 consecutive grand slam finals. Djokovic seemed limitless.

But he was also … erratic. Is that the word? Temperamental? Volatile? He would play a set without missing a single shot and, in the very next, bury shots in the bottom of the net and shout in torment. It became sport to count how many times Djokovic would bounce the ball before he served; sometimes he would bounce it as many as thirty times as he tried to will himself just to hit the ball. He insulted himself by name, and he pointed to the ball as if it was a disobedient child, and he constantly looked up to his coaches for something just out of his reach -- support, comfort, escape, admonishment. He was not in tennis shape. He called often to trainers.

He developed that daunting reputation as the guy who thought too much. He had everything the greatest players had, except for that ability to simply be in the moment -- being present, David Foster Wallace called it -- that ability to hit freely, without worry or concern and only a vague awareness of the gravity surrounding.

In 2011, Djokovic found his zone. For people who barely followed the sport, he seemed to emerge from nowhere. For people who closely followed the sport, his transformation from mercurial to virtuoso was no less shocking. He would say that a new diet transformed him. Others would say, he stopped thinking so much.

He had a year for the ages -- a year most put up there with the best ever. He won three grand slams and five Masters 1000 titles, and he did it with Federer and Nadal at their peaks. He beat Nadal in tournament finals six times. Djokovic played the most frightening tennis imaginable. He reflected players’ power, like a mirror returning laser beams. He returned the hardest serves with fury, he took every shot on the rise, he suffocated players by stealing the time they needed to prepare for the next shot. He turned points into a high noon gunfight, only each gunslinger only walked off three paces instead of 10. He also raced around the court like no one else; you had to hit three or four shots that would be winners against mere mortals to take him out. Nadal himself said Djokovic in 2011 played the best tennis he'd ever seen.

Where to go from there? Djokovic's quality had to drop, and it did. He has been a fantastic player since 2011. Heck, before this Wimbledon, he reached the final in seven of the ten grand slam tournaments. But he lost five of those seven. The demons seemed to return. He has lost to Nadal three straight years at the French Open, each loss more painful than the last. He lost to Federer and Murray at Wimbledon, his favorite tournament. He lost his No. 1 ranking. He lost matches he believes he should have won.

And, all along, who has been there to root for him? Of course, Djokovic has many, many fans all over the world. But in the larger realm what has he been except the foil? Who rooted for Sham against Secretariat at the 1973 Belmont? Who rooted for Greg Norman against Jack Nicklaus at the 1986 Masters? Djokovic was on the wrong side of the net when Andy Murray was trying to finally, finally win a Wimbledon for Great Britain. Djokovic was the wrong side of the net when Rafa Nadal was trying to set more records at the French Open. Djokovic was the on the wrong side of the net Sunday as soon to be 33-year-old Roger Federer looked to turn back the years and make all of us feel just a little bit younger.

Federer took the first set the way Pete Sampras used to take sets at Wimbledon; by holding serve and holding serve and getting an opponent to blink in the tiebreaker. And early in the second set, Djokovic crashed to the ground. The baselines of the court were dry and cracked and made up of devils and dust; both players lost their footing at times. When Djokovic hit the deck, he clearly pulled or twisted or tweaked something in his leg. He called for the trainer. He seemed ready to curl inside himself; but instead he broke Federer’s almost unbreakable serve. And he took command.

Nobody, not even Federer, can play tennis as many different ways as Djokovic. He’s elastic. He can play a power game. He can play a finesse game. He can win with blinding speed. And he can become a backboard, sending every shot back over the net, again and again and again and again. That’s what he began to do to Federer. Nothing in tennis -- not a 140-MPH serve, not a vicious forehand, not a McEnroe net game -- intimidates quite as completely as a player who will not miss. Djokovic took the second set and won the third in a fairly straightforward tiebreaker. He broke Federer’s serve early in the fourth and seemed ready to win in a clinical way.

Only, he didn’t. He couldn’t. That fourth set was one of the wildest rides I can remember in a tennis match. It was the eighth round of the Thrilla in Manilla and the furious final minutes of the Miracle on Ice. For three sets nobody could break serve. And then Djokovic broke Federer and the match seemed over. Federer broke back in stunning fashion to even things up. And Djokovic broke right back. It was staggering and emotional and wild. Djokovic unleashed every bit of brilliance he has. Federer kept responding with shots from his brilliant past. Djokovic served to win the championship; it seemed like finally he would triumph. Only Federer then did what the greatest champions do: He made Djokovic think. He simply put the championship in Djokovic’s hands. If Djokovic wanted to win, he would have to WIN -- that is he would have to hit winning shots with history at stake, with perhaps the greatest player ever on the other side, with the prayers of the crowd coming at him like darts.

And Djokovic couldn’t do it. We will never know what was happening in Djokovic’s mind in that moment, but I’d bet a lot was happening. Federer broke serve, and he hammered an ace on Djokovic’s championship point (Federer successfully challenged a fault call) and he broke Djokovic again to steal that fourth set. Djokovic looked lost again. He kicked a chair. He looked up to his coach, Boris Becker, for support. He flashed an expression that few recover from, an expression that says: “Why me?” He called out the trainer. Federer seemed impossibly close to that glorious 18th major championship.

This was the time, in my head, when I was entirely with Novak. I still can’t quite explain why, not even to myself. As a tennis fan, I’m with Fed. As a sportswriter, I root for the story -- and the better story certainly was Fed. As a 47-year-old guy still trying to hack it on a tennis court, I’m definitely with Fed.

But … in my head the voice said, “Come on, Novak. You can fight through this.” In my stomach, I felt the clenching and unclenching every time Djokovic would face Federer’s serve. That Federer serve was magnificent all day. At one point, he won a game with four consecutive aces -- Djokovic barely even moved. But I kept thinking -- as Djokovic no doubt kept thinking -- that Federer could not hit it like that forever.

In the 10th game of the fifth set, Federer blinked. It wasn’t particularly dramatic. In fact, it ended too quickly for drama … Federer missed a forehand and hit a backhand into the net, and the deed was done. Djokovic had won Wimbledon.

And, yes, of course, I felt gutted for Federer; at one point you could see a single tear streaking down his face. He knew: He might never get this chance again. But more than that, I felt happy for Djokovic. You could tell that this one took more out of him than any of the others. His eyes flooded with tears, and he held up the trophy to his beloved coach Gencic, who died last year, and he graciously spoke of Federer’s greatness and thanked Fed for letting him.  You know: He also might never get a chance like this again.

Maybe that’s why I found myself on his side. Sure, I came in hoping for a beautiful ending. Instead, I found myself rooting for a fantastic new beginning.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski



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