Sporting Life

Djokovic's pressure tactics echo the Tilden manifesto

Novak Djokovic celebrates during the third set against Roger Federer in their Men's Singles Final match of the 2015 US Open.
Novak Djokovic celebrates during the third set against Roger Federer in their Men's Singles Final match of the 2015 US Open. PHOTO: AFP

There they stand on the Grand Slam ranking ladder, sublime Serb and adventurous American, temporarily equals with 10 singles titles each. At first glance, Novak Djokovic and Big Bill Tilden are without similarity. At best they are both 188cm but the Serb is still at the very height of his powers.

Tilden, friend of Charlie Chaplin and imperious star from the 1920s, once said "the player owes the gallery as much as the actor owes the audience". Djokovic is pals with actor Gerard Butler and, according to some critics, produced some fine theatrics with his fakery in his match against Andy Murray in Australia this year.

But it is what Tilden underlined in his book, The Art of Lawn Tennis, that seems to fit the Serb neatly. As Frank Deford, the great sportswriter, revealed in his biography of Tilden, the American star wrote that "the primary object in match tennis is to break up the other man's game".

And no one, right now, does that better than Djokovic. He does not so much defeat rivals as derail their plans and dismantle their ideas. On Sunday, he slipped and still felled Roger Federer.

Federer wore muted hues but his racket made its expected colourful noise. He attacked, Djokovic defused. Here was an alternative to the humdrum baseline symphonies that typify modern tennis music. Here was, in small bits and pieces, a well-behaved McEnroe versus a short-haired Borg caught in a match thrilling because it was tense.  At times, these fellows played jazz.

Like a chef in a televised kitchen, the beauty of Djokovic lies in watching him slowly cook up pressure. He's in your head, he's tampering with your shot selection, he's insisting you hit closer to the lines. He's confusing rivals and making statisticians wonder: how many "errors" against him are in fact "unforced".

The Swiss is six years older, but the Serb has become too many shots better. In his six previous rounds, Federer had been too good for the rest of tennis but Djokovic is the very best of tennis. Till the final, in total, Federer had given up 15 break points; in the final, just in the first two games, Djokovic had created six.

Like a chef in a televised kitchen, the beauty of Djokovic lies in watching him slowly cook up pressure. He returns so adroitly he demands you serve better; he is so efficient he demands you take more risks. He's in your head, he's tampering with your shot selection, he's insisting you hit closer to the lines. He's confusing rivals and making statisticians wonder: How many "errors" against him are in fact "unforced".

At 1-1 in the third set,  Federer is up 40-15, errs, double faults, is down break point and swishes a routine forehand wide. Break. All day his forehand hiccups and wanders and you can say this is coincidence or you can say this is the Djokovic Effect. Either way, in his previous three matches Federer had 54 unforced errors; in the four sets of the final he also has 54.

Federer has to walk a tightrope at high speed. Risk, but just enough. Aggression yet consistency.  Chances not just to be built but taken. He is, in parts, breathtaking - is he ever not? - but this fine balance that victory demands escapes him.

Djokovic will earn 13 break points and convert six; Federer will create 23 but take only four. In the third set, at 3-4, he has two break points; at 5-4 he has another two. History hinges on this, on these fleeting seconds when opportunity is snatched. But Federer can't quite make history. Slam No. 18 is like an elusive kite in the wind that he can see but never quite reel in.

Federer clings onto the match at the end, he scratches, scraps, it is brave, beautiful and then useless. His year, with two slam finals, has been great but by a particular measure: It would not be great for a young Federer but it is for an older one. In his ability to remain relevant lies his genius, in his reinvention of his game rests his evident ambition.

Djokovic's year, better than even Serena Williams' with four straight finals, is great by every measure. He has won three slams in a year for a second time and has now lost in the final of the slam he craves the most for a third time. In 2015, one might say, he is Paris short of perfection.

Djokovic is not as beloved as the aristocratic Federer nor as worshipped as that raw pugilist Rafael Nadal. No tribes come to gush over him, no hordes gather to rave about him. Somehow, in the public arena, he is not quite their adoring equal, but his response has been perfect. He simply wins.

Once, long ago, in a different setting, Tilden had said to a critic, "I'll play my own sweet game". So does Djokovic. He remains as quick as an arrow just released from a bow and is as unyielding as one presumes Churchill was while debating. But, best of all, he is a human champion who applauds his rivals and carries his ego lightly.

In the way he behaves, he honours those who preceded him; in the way he plays, like on Sunday, he confirms again to them he has succeeded them.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2015, with the headline 'Djokovic's pressure tactics echo the Tilden manifesto'. Print Edition | Subscribe