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DJOKOVIC STEPS FORWARD — AND STEPS UP

by 

Matt Zemek

Why is writing about tennis so utterly and endlessly interesting? Many reasons exist, but the biggest one is this: The friction of a tennis match creates an inevitable tension between valuing what the winner did and what the loser failed to do. That tension between two players is the constant and recurring challenge of making sense of a match and a sport whose existence is built on these mano-a-mano confrontations. 

Plenty of times, the tension between “what the winner did and what the loser didn’t do” is easily resolved for reasons which require no explanation. Then there are matches like the one between Novak Djokovic and Borna Coric on Wednesday in the Monte Carlo Masters. This was a match in which the result was caused by both the winner’s quality and the loser’s lapses. At worst, this was a 50-50 balance. At best, one could make the case that two-thirds of this match was based on what Djokovic did well, one-third based on what Coric failed to do. Accordingly, your opinion of how much this match means — or will mean — might differ greatly from the people you talk to about tennis, or from the people you interact with on #TennisTwitter. Diving into a discussion of these differences is what makes tennis writing fun and fascinating.

Let’s jump into the pool at the Monte Carlo Country Club and try to make sense of Djokovic-Coric, then, shall we?

A primary and central point of sports analysis (not just tennis analysis) is that any effort to note the deficiencies of the losing side should not be taken as implied criticism or diminishment of the winning side. It is true in many instances that athletes or teams will win in unconvincing ways, and that the lack of conviction in a victory is a sign of impending trouble down the line. Yet, that is one of many ways to refer to a close win — it’s not the only way, and it is not a “default setting” in sports analysis, either. Everything should be treated on a case-by-case basis, because each competition is framed by its own set of very particular circumstances. Such is the basis for an appraisal of Djokovic-Coric.

It is true that Coric — most specifically and consequentially on a routine forehand miss at 5-5, 15-40, in the first set — helped Djokovic in a number of key moments. It is true that whenever Coric took one step forward, such as breaking Djokovic in the 10th game of the second set after saving a truckload of match points, lost focus moments later. Coric still fought and battled, but he lacked the same belief which carried him to impressive performances in the early rounds of Indian Wells and Miami while lifting him through tighter spots in the latter stages of those tournaments (Kevin Anderson in Indian Wells, Denis Shapovalov in Miami). Coric surmounted obstacles in the United States in March. Wednesday, he did not. His forehand misfired often in the first set, especially on that 5-5, 15-40 point, and his game never stabilized when he was in a neutral scoreboard position.

Note that last qualifier: “when he was in a neutral scoreboard position.”

Yes, Coric’s game DID stabilize at points in the match, but only when he trailed. He fell behind 4-1 in the first set to level for 4-4, but then couldn’t get over the hump, short-circuiting when on the verge of getting a break lead and a chance to serve for the set. Coric fell behind a break early in the second set, then stayed in the conversation with a few tough service holds, but again, as soon as he had a chance to take a 6-5 lead in the set, he faltered. He also faltered in the first-set tiebreaker. In Indian Wells and Miami, Coric regularly pounced on those moments instead of shrinking in the face of them, the exception being his loss to Roger Federer in a match he had many chances to close down.

Plainly put, this marked a step backward for Coric.

A point of emphasis: I would like to think that identifying one player’s backward steps is not assumed or implied to represent an indirect or backhanded diminishment of what Djokovic achieved on Wednesday. Let’s now move to an assessment of the Serbian’s performance… and of sporting events which represent turning points for both sides of the competition.

It is often true in sports — commonplace, to be more precise — for two competitors to enter an event heading in different directions… and to then leave that competition as thoroughly transformed entities. One side’s season-changing negative turning point becomes the other side’s equally season-changing positive turning point. One side’s flagging confidence receives a huge boost from the ability to conquer a big moment which had recently proved hard to master. The other side’s previously surging confidence suddenly takes a noticeable hit after a crucial mistake and the mounting awareness that the pressure of the occasion is proving to be too large. This is not unique to tennis, but since tennis is a solo-athlete sport, the effects of such moments often carry more weight. 

When an athlete on a team makes a big gaffe, he has teammates to pick him up the next time. In tennis, there are no teammates. The individual has to walk over the hot coals of doubt. Personal triumphs and failures become more conspicuous because of the individual nature of tennis. 

What is therefore worth emphasizing in the wake of Djokovic-Coric is that while Coric took a step back, it should be far more evident — and far more significant — that Djokovic took a big step forward in the attempt to restore his greatness, the greatness which dominated tennis at the highest level in all of 2015 and the first half of 2016.

Coric is a young and generally unproven player, which makes this match murky in terms of using it as a barometer for the rest of his season. Djokovic, as a proven champion, owns and deserves levels of trust other players lack. Accordingly, the ability of a champion to fight through difficulties as Nole did against Coric should be seen as more noteworthy than what the challenger (Coric) failed to achieve. The focus should not be on the idea that this match easily could have gone the other way. The focus after this match should settle on the fact that Djokovic fought through problems and solved them.

In the first set against Coric, Djokovic outlined a pattern seen in his Indian Wells and Miami losses: He played well in the first six games but then went through a bad patch. That bad patch cost him the first set in each of those matches, and — it is fair to say — the matches themselves. It cannot be emphasized enough how big it was for Djokovic to rise to the occasion in the tiebreaker. Coric played that breaker poorly, but Djokovic also played — and hit — cleanly. For all the criticisms one could make about Coric’s balky forehand, it is just as true that Djokovic hit a cleaner, heavier ball with noticeably more depth. This might not have been full-flight Djokovic — this is still part of a building (or rebuilding) process for the Serbian superstar — but it was several notches better than anything seen in the United States in March. Djokovic looked less tired and more prepared for battle. That he married his preparedness with crunch-time solidity, especially seen in his flurry of aces late in the second set, reveals a clear and distinct progression in his game.

Sure, one can “what if” all day long about how different this match might have been if Coric made that forehand at 5-5 and 15-40 in the first set… but tennis has always been a sport of small margins and a handful of points. The iconic players of this or any age — the players who establish greatness at the highest level, as Djokovic has — ruthlessly pounce on the one or two key points an opponent fails to finish. Djokovic did that on Wednesday. It’s something he didn’t do in tight scoreboard situations against worse players (Taro Daniel and Benoit Paire) a month ago.

Dominic Thiem is next for Djokovic. If Nole loses, many will be quick to say that this win over Coric didn’t mean much. However, as I wrote earlier in the week, this was always the match which would show if Djokovic was on the right track. I’m not going to shift the goalposts now. Djokovic has already gained something substantial in Monte Carlo, even if he can’t get past Thiem. Moreover, by merely earning a match with Thiem, Djokovic gets a chance to measure himself against the biggest non-Nadal clay threat on tour (other than Nole himself, of course). The simple ability to test his game against an elite player will give Djokovic more information for the rest of the clay season.

So much good has come from this match, and Novak Djokovic did so many things well to put him in position to make this match a positive building block in his 2018 season, which suddenly doesn’t look nearly as dark as it did a few weeks ago.

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Image taken from Zimbio.com

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