When will Djokovic flick the switch?
When will Djokovic flick the switch?
And so we home in on the main prize: after 11 days of Australian Open 2019 battle, we are now at the semifinal stage. There is one hurdle left to overcome before the men’s trophy comes into view on Sunday night.
And what of Novak Djokovic, the six-time champion who seems to have made Melbourne Park his own in the past nine years (five titles won in the last eight attempts is an impressive strike rate by anyone’s standards)? He is through to yet another semifinal showdown and now faces the French debutant, Lucas Pouille.
On paper, that looks to be Djokovic’s for the taking: world No.1 and serial Grand Slam champion takes on world No.31 who had never won a main draw match here until this summer and who has only reached two major quarterfinals in his life before (Wimbledon and the US Open in 2016). But, to use an old line, Grand Slam semifinals are not played on paper.
The reinvention of Djokovic in 2018 was as swift as it was remarkable. He came to Australia with a gammy elbow, the same one that had kept him off the court for the past six months, and he struggled. Surgery repaired the damage and got him playing pain-free again, but he was still well off the pace.
Even when he thought he was playing well again, he was still not the Djokovic of old. He reached the final in Rome and lost to Rafael Nadal (who else?) and headed to the French Open with ambitions to make a serious charge there. And then he lost to Marco Cecchinato in the quarterfinals. Well, that was that, then. He still wasn’t right.
Oh, how little did we know.
From being ranked No.22 at the start of the grass court season – and losing in the Queen’s Club final – he set off and a sprint to the top of the rankings ladder, collecting the Wimbledon and US Open trophies along the way.
Just for good measure, he won in Cincinnati, too, to complete his set of Masters 1000 titles and add another record to his tally: no one else has a full set, not even Roger or Rafa. This, then, was Djokovic back to his blistering best.
And yet a funny thing happened at the ATP Finals in London – Djokovic ran out of steam in the final against Sascha Zverev. Then, in Doha at the start of the season, he lost his rag – and the match – against Roberto Bautista Agut. This was perplexing.
At the Australian Open, he has been getting the job done round by round but is clearly not yet running at top speed. He dropped a set to Denis Shapovalov in the fourth round (although then thrashed the young Canadian in the fourth set) while against Daniil Medvedev, he could not find a way to impose himself on the match. And all the while, the rallies dragged on and on.
“It was kind of a cat-and-a-mouse game for most of the match,” Djokovic said of that quarterfinal. “That's why it was so lengthy. We had rallies of 40, 45 exchanges. You have to open up the court and try to be patient and construct the point.
“Sometimes it's easier said than done. Just depends on how you feel. Sometimes, you know, you're a bit more hesitant because you're tighter.”
And therein may lie the key to all of this. Djokovic is back at the top of the rankings ladder, he has rediscovered the knack of winning major titles, but he is only six months into this new life.
When he completed his non-calendar Grand Slam by winning the French Open in 2016, he had swept all before him as he marched to final after final. There was a reinforced concrete shell protecting his confidence and even when things were not going well on court, he had the wonderful facility to hit the reset button and start from scratch.
He treated his game plan like others treat their laptops: when it goes wrong, turn it off and then turn it back on again and see what happens. It usually works.
This rock-solid belief had been built up over years, but when his motivation evaporated after that French Open win and when his elbow started to hurt even more, he faded away. For two years, he dawdled in the doldrums until he found a way to win again last year. But still it seems that that confidence is not as reliable as it was.
Another worrying factor is his health. In the Medvedev match he was dragged all over the court by the Russian, and by the end of their four sets he was flexing his leg and his back – not a happy camper.
“It was just, you know, a little bit of fatigue, a little bit of back,” he said. “Nothing major. But there are a couple of things that have surfaced, so to say, you know, after a match like this.”
Delighted that he only had to play for 52 minutes against the usually dogged and consistent Kei Nishikori in the quarterfinal (the Japanese withdrew after a set and half with a leg injury), he should be physically fresh for Friday’s semi-final. But will he be mentally ready?
MORE: Early night for Djokovic after Nishikori retires
“It's funny that we're going to play first time against each other,” Djokovic mused. “We've practiced many times. We've known each other obviously for a long time. Here we go. We'll see. It's the semifinals. We both, I'm sure, want to get to the finals. Hopefully we can both be fresh and fit and put on the great show.”
That sounded like a man who knew that experience helps in these matters. He has been there, done that and bought the final t-shirt 23 times (and won 14 times when he got there).
He also sounded like a man who knew that he was almost there; almost at his peak – he just needs to flick that switch that will turn him from Normal Novak, the man who is getting the job done as efficiently as he can, to Super Novak, the caped superhero who in his pomp can rule the world.
He just needs to find the exact location of that switch and all will be well.