Monday, 16 November 2009

Paris: Novak Repackaged, Not Reborn

Djokovic d. Monfils 6-2 5-7 7-6 (3)

For a set and a half yesterday Novak Djokovic played the kind of flawless tennis that made you think it was 2007 all over again.

It all looked very grand indeed.

Only twenty four hours earlier Novak had dusted off Nadal using the same blend of unrestrained flamboyance, and precision guided play, not seen from him for well over 18 months.

djoko (Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Gael, for all his flamboyant bravado, looked like a school kid well and truly out of his depth, on his way to being comprehensively stripped and gutted before being hurled on to a heap in some remote landfill site.

Then something happened.

The paint stripper stopped working. The jackhammer seized up.

Mostly it was about everything misfiring, all at once.

I was worried ‘Grinderman’ was about to resurface – that at least would have meant he would more than likely have kept his cool to put Gael away in two -- but this was more serious than that.

We’d seen this Jekyll and Hyde act at various points thr0ughout the year, so the sight of Djoko unable to keep the ball in play, perhaps shouldn’t be that astonishing. Think back carefully and you’ll remember it happened this very week, in that second set he played against Big Rob.

Which is why I feel it’s all very premature to read too much into his recent wins over Messrs Fed and Nadal, and that many journos are rather overreaching themselves in their desperate attempts at recasting him as ‘The One Reborn’.

It's not just that Nadal's own shadow would likely take offence at being made an exemplification for his shoddy form (though I'm actually sorta glad its a dip and not a bad knee that’s at the root of the problem).

Or that this weekend's result might readily have been so very different had Federer not run into an impromptu demonstration of French Tennis, the way it should be played.

The real reason I'm having diffculty buying into the concept of 'Novak - Reborn', is that this is not so much a return to his old form as it is a carefully managed optimisation of a different brand of tennis. A game that's had commentators perplexed since he switched frames at the beginning of the year, with it's uncharacteristic and bizarre forays into grinderman territory.

Don't worry, I'm not going down that road again. My point is that, whilst I'm glad Novak has managed to optimise his play into something more in line with his standing in the game, it's not what led him to winning a Slam.

He may reach those less manufactured heights again with further successive optimisations and, I hope, a gradual curbing of that grind I once found so offensive, but which has now given way to a kind of unapologetic indifference. But until then, let's just say the occasional shocker wouldn't shock me.

That said, Djoko deserves all the plaudits he’s been receiving these past two weeks for being one of the few players seemingly fit enough and committed enough to make something of the remaining few weeks of the calendar: there’s still tennis to be played whatever you might think of the post-USO variety.

What’s more is he’s deserving of a Masters 1000 title - maybe even on the back of that astonishing Madrid semi-final alone.

Maybe it's that sense of vindication that was behind that wolverine-like transformation that unfurled during the spectacle that was his victory celebration. It reminded me of those Maori-inspired Hakka Dances the New Zealand All Blacks perform before going into 'battle'. Try and picture this happening during a Serbian-American Davis Cup tie involving Djoko facing off with A-Rod.

Ok, maybe don’t picture it happening.

I don’t really know what to say about Gael, other than that he served exceedingly well. I don’t like the way he lurks behind the baseline. Never have, never will; and I despise his loopy defensive shots that barely clear the service line and, as far as I'm concerned, have no business being a part of the modern game (wouldn’t it be easier to play the match with the words ‘sitting duck’ emblazoned on your chest?).

monfils (Photo: AP)

But he did well to keep his cool (if you can call it that) when Djoko’s forehand went so awry during that second set, thereby forcing a third, and for that I guess he deserves some credit. It was certainly well received by the Parisian crowd.

I’m just not convinced this experience was anywhere near as life-changing or career-transforming as it might have been.

Why does that not surprise me?

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