There was a moment only a few minutes into the Oscar Award Winning movie Gladiator, when Russell Crowe’s Maximus instructed his trusty lieutenant…’on my signal, unleash hell’. From that point on you just knew that regardless of what the poor villagers brought to the table, Maximus and the Roman’s were going to tear them all a new ar#ehole.
This morning I woke up to the amazing news that Novak Djokovic beat Rafa Nadal in the Master Series final in Madrid – on clay no less – to extend his amazing unbeaten record in 2011 to 32 matches (34 dating back to last years Davis Cup final). All weekend I was readying myself for the inevitability that Nadal would emerge victorious and I could write about how Nole’s magical run had to end sooner or later. And the stage was perfectly set for a Nadal victory. Seeking revenge after two straight finals loses to Novak this year, playing on his favourite surface, in his home country and following the death of a great Spanish sportsman, Seve Ballesteros, the writing was on the wall. Nadal was going to enter Terminator mode and keep coming and coming until he broke Novak’s will. But here’s the catch. Out of everything that has improved in Novak’s game in 2011, it’s his will that has taken the greatest stride forward. And right now, it cannot be broken.
Novak’s service is not a great weapon, but it’s no longer a glaring weakness. Opponents who used to prey on a wobbly first serve and an even worse second are now faced with a tough first look and a much more confident second that doesn’t allow for many easy points anymore. A forehand that used to vacillate between the ridiculous and the sublime is now pretty much permanently in sublime territory. The backhand has become a master class that all budding tennis stars should examine if they want to see what poetry in motion on a tennis court looks like. Novak’s return of serve is now in the Andre Agassi stratosphere, and his court movement and overall defence is better than any player past or present.
Then there is the question of will.
The one glaring weakness in Novak’s game in years gone by has been his drive, his intensity, his will to win. The physical skills have always been apparent, but it appeared that he lacked the heart of a champion. All too often he wilted in the face of pressure, heaving, huffing and puffing whenever facing a point of significance. A long list of physical ailments seemed to be a by-product of a mindset that wasn’t built to compete at the highest levels. Shortness of breath, cramping and nausea were just some of the physical symptoms that became a common facet of a Djokovic semi final or final.
Greats such as the ice-cool Bjorn Borg, robotic Ivan Lendl, fiery John McEnroe, relentless Nadal, emotionless Pete Sampras and even more emotionless Roger Federer have built their domination based on an ability to step up when it mattered most.
Now Novak is entering this equation.
During the course of this years’ Australian Open Jim Courier made comment that although Novak was already a Grand Slam champion, winning Serbia’s first ever Davis Cup, with the final on home soil, was perhaps the toughest mental test Novak could / would ever face in tennis.
It seems that this was the moment that had unlocked the secret to winning. Novak absorbed the pressure and expectation of an entire nation and didn’t wilt. Since then he has unleashed hell on the entire tennis world. A second Grand Slam title included the destruction of an ageing Federer and dispirited Andy Murray. Then consecutive Master’s wins followed, beating Nadal in both finals…coming back from a set down each time no less. And now he has ended Rafa’s two year domination on clay, in his own backyard of all things.
Longest ATP winning streaks
46 - Guillermo Vilas (1977)
44 - Ivan Lendl (1981-82)
42 - John McEnroe (1984)
41 - Bjorn Borg (1979-80)
41 - Roger Federer (2007-07)
35 - Bjorn Borg (1978)
35 - Thomas Muster (1995)
35 - Roger Federer (2005)
34* - Novak Djokovic (2010-)
32 - Rafael Nadal (2008)
* active streak
The win in Madrid has made Nole’s rise to the number one ranking a distinct possibility it has also made him a legitimate contender for a third Grand Slam at Roland Garros. Not only has he discovered the secret, he has also planted a seed of doubt in Rafa’s impenetrable mental wall that perhaps his reign as the undisputed King of Clay may be coming to an end.
And with that continues the amazing journey up the list of longest winning streaks. He’s surpassed Lendl and sits eleven wins away from setting a new record for the greatest season start in history (McEnroe had 42 consecutive wins to start the 1984season). Two more wins after reaching that milestone and he’ll overtake Guillermo Vilas for the longest undefeated run of all time.
Novak himself acknowledges that despite some subtle changes to his game over the past couple of years, it’s the mental element that has made all the different.
"It has changed, I have a different mindset right now, I'm more stable and I know how to think right."
UP: Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United. Following their overnight 2-1 win over Chelsea at Old Trafford, the 19th domestic title that moves Man U into the number one spot is now signed, sealed, to be delivered with just one point earned from remaining games against Blackburn and Blackpool. Glory, glory
DOWN: Parramatta Eels recruitment. After wasting cap space on a collection of has-beens and never-weres – I’m looking at you Carl Webb, Reni Maitua, Chris Walker, Chris Hicks and Paul Whaturia – the Eels just blew a massive part of their salary cap on little Chris Sandow. I know good halves are difficult to come by, and acknowledge that Sandow is a vast improvement on Jeff Robson, but if some of the $$$ being bandied about are true, then the club has mortgaged its future on a player in need of drastic improvement before he can lead a team into contention. And Sandow isn’t the final piece of the Eels puzzle. We also need another winger, centre, back rower, prop, hooker and a better bench. Still a long way to go for the Blue and Gold army
UP: Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull racing. After securing his fourth consecutive pole in Turkey, Vettel’s stroll to a third F1 victory this season had an air of inevitability. The driver, the car and the tactics have come together and have given this season, even this early in, an aura of Groundhog Day
DOWN: NSW State of Origin. After watching Queensland dominate New Zealand in the recent ANZAC Test, I convinced it’s going to be another long year for NSW in the State of Origin arena. It kills me to say this, but I’m at the point where I think the best option is to dress the St George-Illawarra Steelers in Blue jerseys and put them up to represent the state. This team has dominated the NRL for over two years now, and could do no worse than the teams that have conspired to lose the past five series