Djokovic Handled the Heat
When Muhammad Ali was young, the question that surrounded him was about seriousness: How serious a fighter was he, really? Sure, he could dance and slash, appear and disappear at will, float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, all that stuff, but boxing is not a sport for butterflies. Over rounds and years, the legs grow weary and the reflexes dull and the hardest question is asked: Will you go on? Can you go on?
“Everybody has a plan,” Mike Tyson famously said, “until they get punched in the mouth,” a brilliant thought laden with irony because Tyson himself had a plan until Buster Douglas knocked the mouthpiece clean out of his mouth.
Ali’s lasting greatness, it turned out, was his seriousness. There was no dancing when Joe Frazier landed another left hook in the final rounds of the Thrilla. There was no stinging as he endured the most ferocious windmill of punches George Foreman could produce in Zaire. There was no floating when Ken Norton broke his jaw. That was when we saw Ali naked, without butterfly wings, and what we saw was a serious man who refused to yield. That’s what made him The Greatest.
There was every reason on Sunday for Novak Djokovic to yield in Cincinnati. This wasn’t a grand slam final. This wasn’t a grand slam at all. This was an important tournament, to be sure, a Masters 1000, the next level down from the slams. But what are Masters 1000s to Novak Djokovic at this stage of his career? He had won THIRTY-EIGHT of them. Of course, that’s the record. He is the only player in the history of tennis to win all eight Masters 1000 tournaments — and he won each of the eight at least twice, including Cincinnati. Heck, he skipped last week’s Masters 1000 in Toronto. There is nothing left to do here.
He has admitted as much — Djokovic at this point is playing for majors, playing for history, playing to win the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. That is all. Everything in his scheduling, his training, his mental, physical and emotional preparation is geared to win one of the biggest four tennis tournaments on earth. That’s a familiar thing. That’s how Tiger and Jack were in golf, and that’s how Rafa and Roger and Serena and Pistol Pete were in tennis. The other tournaments were there for tuning up, sharpening the senses, getting the body ready. Nothing more. Nothing less.
This is more true about Cincinnati, probably, than any other tournament. Cincinnati has long been a week or so before the U.S. Open, which might be the most grueling of all the Grand Slams, with the heat and the raucous New York crowds, and the late-night matches. The last man to win Cincinnati and the U.S. Open in the same year was Djokovic himself, back in 2018, and, before that, it was Rafael Nadal in 2013 and, before that, it was Roger Federer back in 2007. It’s so hot in Cincinnati. It’s so humid. The balls jump off the courts like cobras striking. For most players, like Borna Coric, who won last year, yes, taking Cincinnati can be the highlight of a career.
But for Novak Djokovic? Nah. You don’t want to leave your heart in Cincinnati.
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