SPORTING LIFE

Rohit at the Australian Open: With Djokovic, there is no law of diminishing returns

Whichever part of court craft that you want to dissect, Novak Djokovic proves he can conduct a masterclass, as he shows in his taming of Milos Raonic.
Whichever part of court craft that you want to dissect, Novak Djokovic proves he can conduct a masterclass, as he shows in his taming of Milos Raonic.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The rapid flight of minor genius is about to begin on Rod Laver Arena. Milos Raonic, his seemingly gelled hair neatly combed, is attempting to violently part Novak Djokovic's hair with his colossal serve.

Djokovic is waiting, Raonic serves, and the Serb is gone. From quivering crouch to sudden lunge, from feet on court to feet in the air. Trying to return serve. Think of it as a striking snake. Or a man trying to catch one.

Djokovic does this - and everything else - with such felicity that he dismantles Raonic 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, 6-2. Not a set dropped in five matches, the Serb, a four-time champion here, is in his 25th Grand Slam semi-final after a lecture in court craft and a stunning tutorial in returning.

Raonic's first serve of the match is a fault. At 221kmh. Its speed draws a murmur from the crowd. Next point a 219kmh ace. Followed by serves at 220, 221, 215 and 226. But already Djokovic has sneaked two break points. He won't break yet, but it's a sign.

Six games later, Raonic, whose right arm is encased in a sleeve as if to disguise the fact that it is bionic, serves at 229kmh, then 229, 216, 226 and 220. Yet again Djokovic draws two break points. Again he won't break. Again he, a creator of pressure, knows he is close.

Raonic, 1.96m, 98kg, a prizefighter with a racket, is exploding serves from 23.77m away and it leaves Djokovic roughly 0.37 of a second to react. It seems like the blink of an eye but the Serb is an illusionist. He can make it seem like a lifetime. Which is why Paul Annacone, coach once to Pete Sampras and then Roger Federer, says "he is in the conversation with Andre Agassi and Jimmy Connors as the best-ever returner".

Djokovic isn't sport's most electric mover. Hockey goalkeepers make lightning look slow in their reactions and Formula One drivers make rapid calculations while moving at 300kmh. Usain Bolt, while setting his 100m world record in 2009, left the blocks 0.146 of a second after hearing the starter's gun and he was only the sixth-fastest starter. But if sprinting is primitive explosion, Djokovic is profoundly inventive.

He's a reader of the serve, says former doubles legend Todd Woodbridge, examining "the action, the toss, picking up a pattern". He is armed with instinct, equipped with a dossier of experience, outfitted with a radar and packing intuition.

His eyesight isn't necessarily better, but he has what Roger Rasheed, who coaches Grigor Dimitrov, calls a "gift". A bit like Cristiano Ronaldo in the penalty area, or Sachin Tendulkar on a pitch, he just, says Annacone, "sees the ball early". As if when it leaves the racket, it pings him a private message.

Djokovic, unlike a sprinter, isn't just moving, he's rotating his hips precisely, turning his shoulder exactly, adjusting his racket face, arranging his feet, somehow sorting out this complex algorithm of spin, velocity, angle, bounce in his head and responding. It is athletic ballet compressed into milliseconds.

All night, Djokovic just wants to get his return in play, to just start a stroke conversation with Raonic, because he knows he can control a point better than any player on the planet. "It's the key... one of the keys is getting returns back in play. And I thought I executed that play very well."

At 3-2 in the tie-breaker, finally, pressure pays: The Serb stretches his elastic body for a Raonic first serve, returns it, Raonic hits it out, Djokovic has the mini-break. The set is over.

Djokovic has to live in this strange place of patient aggressiveness. Wait, wait, wait. The chance will come. In the first game of the second set, Raonic has only one first serve in play and Djokovic breaks. In the third set, the Serb, somehow propelling returns to land deep, breaks twice.

The match is done. Lesson over. The Serb has done a number on the Canadian. Raonic's average of first-serve points won all tournament is 85.5 per cent. On this night he wins only 72 per cent. Says the Canadian: "He does a good job with putting the returns deep."

But Raonic says it is more than that and Stan Wawrinka, who beat Djokovic here last year and is up next, knows the Serb is a man of too many brilliant parts. Forget return, for instance, try serve.

This night, Djokovic wins 89 per cent of his first serves and doesn't let Raonic even look at a break point. Later he smiles, looks up at his coach, and says of his own serving: "I feel like Boris Becker on the court." In every way, or so it seems right now, the Serb is returning to his best.

rohitb@sph.com.sg