Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

James Lawton: Ice baths and aggression point way to Australian Open triumph for Novak Djokovic

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 23: Novak Djokovic of Serbia looks on in a practice session during day ten of the 2013 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 23, 2013 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Lucas Dawson/Getty Images)

Novak Djokovic provided an engaging picture of himself after feeding the powerful and talented Tomas Berdych into the tennis equivalent of a shredding machine.

It was of him sitting in an ice bath chatting amiably with the old favourite of the Australian Open crowd, Lleyton Hewitt, but if this was just a snapshot of his remarkable recovery from the five-hour, five-set win over the defiant Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka it came, as you might have expected, with another philosophical statement of the most formidable intent.



We talk often and casually enough about the great competitors moving into "the zone". Here is one who is suggesting he might have filled it with an armoured division.



There may never have been another Grand Slam champion, not even the raging John McEnroe or the impassioned Andre Agassi, to have conveyed quite so explicitly the intensity of his passion to win and all of it was reporting for duty in the demolition of the world's sixth-ranked player from the Czech Republic.



This was the collision of a gifted player and someone who continues to drive himself on to another plateau.



With the great Roger Federer fanning the last flames of a unique talent and Rafa Nadal battling against career-threatening infirmities, the 25-year-old Serbian is moving towards his sixth Grand Slam title in something resembling a controlled competitive rage.



His work this week has sent out a whole series of warnings and not the least among them, signalled to Andy Murray that his new status as US Open champion and Olympic gold medallist may well be heading for its most demanding examination. No doubt it was something tugging at the corners of the Scotsman's psyche when he went out in the early hours of this morning hoping to stifle as routinely as possible the ambitions of the Frenchman Jérémy Chardy. This, surely, is the effect of Djokovic on the march. His aggression spills into every corner. He doesn't walk into an arena, he invades it.



Djokovic explained that the evisceration of Berdych – in precisely half the time it took to dispatch the obdurate Wawrinka – could only have happened after perfect handling of the fatigue that came with his earlier labours. "People who don't know tennis," he said, "who have never been in these kind of situations would not truly understand what a player has to go through, not just when you prepare for a Grand Slam but also during a Grand Slam.



"After five hours of a match you really need to put a lot of time into recovery, different kinds of recovery. I understand that many have different views and opinions and I respect that. But I'm doing everything that is legal, that is correct, that I naturally can, possibly can in my power – and it is going well."



Translation: I am in charge of my body and my ambition and good luck to anyone who dreams of stopping me.



There is huge terrain to conquer if Djokovic is to get anywhere near the empire created by Federer with his record mark of 17 Grand Slams. Even if Melbourne falls to the Serb for a fourth straight time, he will still be 11 titles short of the Federer mark or, put another way, the career-long accumulations of such epic achievers as Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg.



Nadal is locked on 11, Murray in the foothills of one title and maybe it is that Federer's time, finally, has passed. So where does this leave Djokovic as he moves between his bed and ice baths and the arena he has come to dominate so profoundly?



It is in an astonishing place that has become one of the most compelling in all of sport, somewhere filled with an ambition which has become ferociously overt and spectacular. Against Berdych there was the brief torment of the lost second set after a 28-minute rampage through the first. The rest was filled with play that stretched the bounds of tennis possibility.



The Czech walked off court with the downcast demeanour of a man that had been confronted again by the misfortune of being born at the wrong time. This was his 12th defeat in 13 meetings. It wasn't so much futility as persecution.



Djokovic's semi-final opponent, David Ferrer, ranked No 5 and briefly glowing from his "miraculous" five-set victory over Spanish compatriot Nicolas Almagro, rolled his eyes when asked about his prospects. Of course Djokovic was a big favourite but he had a chance – the kind, he seemed to be saying, when a firing squad appears at the other side of the net.



No doubt Murray awoke in a rather more sanguine frame of mind.



He, too, has been to the mountain top. However, it has been rather less frequently than the man from Serbia who was born a week later but with an impatience that the highest level of sport has rarely seen.

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