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No. 24 and No. 1
At some point in the last few weeks, I ended up on a rather ferocious tennis message thread with my friends Howard and Brian. Most of the people I know in my life, even those I play tennis with, are, at most, casual tennis fans, so it is quite striking to be on a geeky tennis thread where David Wheaton, Philipp Kohlschreiber and Gabby Sabatini just get mentioned unironically and for no particular reason.
In any case, the thread was red-hot over the weekend, as Coco Gauff won her first grand slam title … and Novak Djokovic won his 24th.
Gauff’s magnificent, three-set comeback victory over Aryna Sabalenka led to a viral moment when she called out the haters. She’s only 19 years old, but she burst on the scene as a 15-year-old and so much was expected so soon and she took way too many jabs from people ready to write her off before she was even old enough to legally drink.
“I want to honestly say thank you to the people who didn’t believe in me,” she said. “Honestly, to those who thought they were putting water on my fire, you were actually adding gas to it. And now I’m really burning so bright right now.”
I have this theory that there are essentially two kinds of athletes — those who are partially powered by negativity and those who are partially powered by positivity. I’m sure there are other categories, too, but my point is that some (think Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, Reggie Jackson, Muhammad Ali, etc.) seem to need doubters and critics and detractors to pull out the very best they have inside. They are fueled by rage and hunger and the need to prove everyone wrong.
Others, I think, are wired differently, and it’s actually the need to go higher, to achieve more, to thrill people, that pushes them forward. They are powered by love, I guess. Stan Musial. Roger Federer. Arnold Palmer, Patrick Mahomes seems to have some of that in him. I have always believed, for example, that Tiger Woods is actually one of these people. He has certainly faced down many doubters and haters, but when Tiger was at his very best, he seemed to have a life force behind him. So many people wanted him to become the best ever. It never seemed about proving people wrong. It seemed more about proving people right.
I’m not saying one way is better or more effective than the other — and in the end, every great athlete is powered by more than just one thing.
It looks like Coco Gauff is more in that Tom Brady category. I’m not saying she LIKES dealing with the (totally unfair) criticism, but I’m saying that it has made her stronger and pushed her forward. She is now the No. 3 player in the world, and she seems to be on the rocket path to No. 1. What was so amazing about her run is that three times in nine days she lost the first set, only to come back and win. Her will came through as much as her talent. The haters, if they are still out there, will probably want to move on to someone else.
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On my geeky tennis thread, Howard and Brian both spent many, many messages criticizing Daniil Medvedev’s strategy against Novak Djokovic in the men’s U.S. Open final. That strategy, best I can surmise, was to instigate punishing rallies, one after another after another after another, working the body, working the body, until he wore out the 36-year-old Novak. Howard and Brian both thought that trying to outlast Djokovic, who has endured and triumphed in more grueling tennis wars than any player in the history of the game, was simply foolish. They believed Meddy should have shortened up his return position and charged the net more and tried to pressure Djokovic.
I could not disagree more.
For one thing, I don’t think that Medvedev has an ideal strategy to defeat Djoker other than hoping that he isn’t at his best. Meddy has beaten Novak five times, once in the 2021 U.S. Open final, but in each of those cases, Novak’s level dropped. This was particularly true at the 2021 U.S. Open, when Novak was playing for the yearlong Grand Slam, and was very much in his own head. Medvedev is one of the very few players on earth — fewer than five, maybe as few as two — who can beat Djokovic in a five-set match IF Novak’s game is off.
Medvedev’s game is Medvedev’s game — he plays way behind the baseline, runs down everything including drop shots, puts balls in play one after another, hits brilliant passing shots and slams huge first serves. This is who he is. He’s not especially good at the net, not particularly good at crowding his opponents and taking away time, etc. For him to try and beat Djokovic by playing a different game from that, in my view, would have been ludicrous.
But even more to the point, Medvedev’s strategy almost worked. Well, first, Medvedev came out super-nervous and he essentially threw a service game before the fans had even settled into their seats. That’s a pretty bad idea against Novak, and Djokovic took full advantage by serving out the set.
But the second set was a nearly two-hour war — and Novak was absolutely on the ropes. He would talk afterward about how he could never remember the rallies taking so much out of him. He could barely breathe. Djokovic can be pretty much any player he wants to be, that’s his genius; he’s a shapeshifter, but Medvedev decided to reduce tennis to its purest form: Let’s see who can hit the last shot.
And in that set, he outplayed Novak — Djokovic readily admitted that. The two went at each other like Hagler and Hearns, and Djokovic was out on his feet, and Meddy had a set point and a wide-open backhand down the line to take it. If Medvedev had won that set, there’s no telling how this match would have turned out. Sure, it seems likely that Novak would have steadied himself and found energy reserves like he had so many times before, but that was certainly no guarantee. Meddy is nine years younger.
But Medvedev did not hit that backhand down the line. He anticipated Djokovic covering the line, so he hit the ball crosscourt instead.
Djokovic, though, had not covered the line. Nobody in the sport is as good at guessing what’s going through the other player’s mind. Meddy’s shot was hit right at him, and he put the volley away.
And as Djokovic walked back to the service line, he smiled. He knew. He had a “Get out of Jail” free card, and he’d used it, and when the set went into a tiebreaker, Novak felt reborn. He loves tiebreakers. He came back from a mini-break down to win the tiebreaker and the set, and as his coach, Goran Ivanišević, said, the only thing that was left to be decided at that point was how long the third set would last.
It did not last long. Djokovic d. Medvedev 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-3.
This was grand slam No. 24 for Djokovic. He’s now two ahead of Rafa Nadal and an impossible four clear of Roger Federer — he has now won more slams than Federer and Andy Murray combined — and the bigger the number gets, the more absurd and indefinable it seems. But this number meant more to Novak, not only because it tied him with Margaret Court for the overall slam record, men’s and women’s, but because it was the number of his great friend and fellow intense competitor Kobe Bryant.
Djokovic’s intensity on the court is not hard to see — he will inevitably start screaming at his player’s box at some point in the match — but apparently that’s NOTHING compared to what he’s like on a daily basis during practice. Ivanišević has talked about how every single day, Djokovic comes to the court complaining about something or other in his game — his backhand feels off, his serve needs refining, his balance is not what it should be, whatever — and he will not accept this. He wants the problem fixed, and he wants it fixed now, and he will rant and rage until he feels confident with his game again. And the next day, it’s more of the same.
Djokovic himself is not PROUD of the way he often acts with his team — he’s upfront about how difficult he can be — but he’s going for perfection, and he needs a team that’s willing to endure his anger and insecurities and quenchless thirst for getting better. The number of people willing to argue that Djokovic is NOT the greatest player ever shrinks every day. This, he says, has been the only way he knows how to get there.
I bring this up because I imagine there aren’t many athletes on earth who Djokovic could really talk to about all this. Kobe, though, yes, Kobe could understand, because Kobe Bryant was the same; he needed to sometimes go to dark places in order to bring out the divine in his game. Djokovic and Bryant were also smart enough and self-aware enough to comprehend their compulsions, their obsessions, their not-always-healthy need to win. It was Kobe who helped talk Novak through when the injuries seemed ready to derail him a few years ago. It was Kobe who convinced Novak that he still had some of his best tennis left.
And when Djokovic won his 24th grand slam — he’s now the oldest winner of the U.S. Open — he pulled out a special shirt featuring Kobe and his phrase “Mamba Mentality,” and that magical 24 number. The way things are going, though, he won’t be on No. 24 for very long.