Invictus

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

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A popular ESPNconversations member, and Djokovic fan, The Wolf Princess of Mount Lupus, used to – rather aptly – call Djokovic Invictus.  The first stanza to William Ernest Henley’s popular poem repeated in my mind as I watched Djokovic and Wawrinka battle out what would eventually become the closing point to an unexpected and yet breathtaking contest of shot-making, guts and will.  And what a final point it was.  As Djokovic reached over and hugged – almost consoled – the defeated Wawrinka, as he ripped off his shirt, letting out one of his primal screams, I wondered to myself when this scenario had become all too familiar for me. It’s becoming quite ridiculous, albeit still amazing, how many times Novak Djokovic has been pushed to the very brink of defeat, only to will himself back into the match and then win it. 

It is amazing to think that this same player who represents something that borders on the invincible, was at one time unfortunately labeled as the image of the quitter, the player who didn’t have what it takes to go the distance, and who was doomed to squander his talents due to his inability to overcome his physical struggles.  The Djoker he was called by many and it wasn’t solely due to his brilliant impersonations of other players.  Novak Djokovic was considered a perennial third wheel, an opening act to be followed up by the main attraction that was the Fed/Rafa duopoly.  Even after collecting the first of his six and counting majors at the 2008 Australian Open – a venue that is now officially Nole’s house – fans found it hard to take him seriously.  It would seem first impressions really do go a long way for even as Djokovic silently began to build a solid grand slam record, posting semi-final after semi-final result, he was always the forgotten man lurking in the shadows of his two contemporaries.  But just when everyone was beginning to relegate Novak Djokovic to that dreaded status of a one slam wonder, the Serbian found that intangible, unquantifiable and yet essential quality every great champion that has graced the game seems to possess.  Belief. 

It is difficult to tell when a player has truly found belief, mainly because it is so loosely talked about.  Take for instance, in the tournaments that led up to the Australian Open, young players such as Dimitrov, Raonic and Tomic talked – rather convincingly if I might add – about finally believing that their games could hold up against the very best.  They sent subtle hints that seemed to say I believe I’m finally ready to take the next step.  Tomic and Raonic fell to Federer in successive third and fourth rounds, and Dimitrov never showed any belief in being able to get past the first round.  Due to it’s elusive nature, it remains one of those qualities that can best be described as “I’ll know it when I see it.”  And we all saw it when Djokovic beat Federer at the U.S open in 2010.  Even though he lost to Nadal in the final, his post match celebration after that win against Federer, in retrospect doesn’t seem to be one of shock.  It was one of realization.  I can do this.  I believe.  For the first time, after years of his parents, coach, and fans believing in him, Djokovic finally believed in himself.  What happened next, and what continues to happen since that match, is a bit of a blur. 

With the final facet to his champion’s game fully incorporated into his tennis genome, Novak Djokovic proceeded to make mockery of the entire ATP field for two thirds of the 2011 season, capturing three of the four grand slams that year.  In the wake of such a historic season – one made all the more remarkable when you consider who his contemporaries are – tennis analysts, players, former greats and fans alike wondered if he could do it again in 2012.  Djokovic did not repeat the utter dominance of 2011.  There were stutters along the way both on and off the court but true to Henley’s words, Novak’s soul remained unconquerable.  This is just as well for while he lost some battles along the way, he eventually won the war, befittingly the last man standing in the O2 arena and lifting the trophy that proclaimed him the best of the best that season.  Nadal, Tsonga, Murray and Federer to name a few had all taken their best shot at him and while they had managed to subdue him for stretches of the season, they never conquered him. 

The thing about success is the more you achieve it, the more others demand the same of you and the more you demand the same of yourself.  Such a notion is never more accurately captured than it is in tennis, specifically when looking at the top players.  The more slams you win, the more you are compared to the all time greats, and the more chances you get to break long standing records or even set some unique ones of your own.  Such was the opportunity and complimentary pressure presented to Djokovic as he entered this year’s Australian Open, bidding to become the first man to win it thrice in a row.  As fate would have it, Novak Djokovic was dealt what seemed to be a very manageable draw to the finals.  However fate is not without it’s infamous twists and turns.  The resolve of the champion was without a doubt going to be tested, possibly by a Scotsman, or maybe a Czech, or maybe even a Swiss.  In the end, it was a Swiss and in keeping with the unpredictability of tennis, that Swiss was not Roger Federer.  Against any other opponent that night, Stanilas Wawrinka would have won the match possibly in straight sets.  But that night, he was playing Nole and while he left the Serb’s head bloodied, he left it as yet unbowed.  Match point over, the hug at the net, the shake with the umpire and then that all too familiar scream that seemed to say:

I am the master of my fate

I am the captain of my soul

INVICTUS.

Five Thoughts From This Year’s Davis Cup Encounters

If only they played like that at the slams

Granted, the U.S Davis Cup opponents happened to be Brazil, but the latter nation is not without talent in the sport and they proved so, erasing a 0 – 2 deficit before succumbing 3 – 2 in the fifth rubber.  One wonders what it is about the Davis Cup atmosphere that makes the U.S men rise to the occasion.  Maybe it’s because this is a country that gravitates towards team sports more so than it does towards individual heroics.  There’s also the added pride in representing one’s country, that can give otherwise lackadaisical players the added edge they generally lack.  A certain David Nalbandian comes to mind.  Whatever the case may be, the Davis cup has always been a great source of experience and momentum for players in the past.  Now if only John Isner and his cohorts can approach the majors like it’s the Davis Cup…

Who says Gollum’s got no heart?

Tomas Berdych will never be popular for his mental strength or fighting spirit and that’s okay too.  There’s a very good chance he doesn’t bother himself with how he’s perceived in the public eye. Judging by the win he and Lukas Rosol – anyone remember him? – pulled off in an epic 7 hour doubles contest, there is no doubt that there is a competitive fire burning beneath that grim and sullen exoskeleton of his.  As if that doubles match wasn’t impressive enough, Tomas backed it up by closing under pressure, against a very good Stan Wawrinka in the decider.

Still the man…

If you are Stan the man Wawrinka, right now you might be still trying to figure out how to quantify and to a greater extent, qualify the losses you’ve been dealt this year.  Two in the first two months.  At this rate… Stan hopefully is a glass half-full kinda guy.  The losses have been close.  Painfully so.  However, they have been close.  There was a time this could not be said for the Swiss no.2 when he got onto the court to play a potentially big and career changing match.  Hopefully he can see this as a step in the right direction and go one further next time around.

Canada… Home and… Dry

Milos Raonic led his charges against one of the world’s top Davis Cup superpowers.  On paper, the odds were against Canada.  However, Spain was severely depleted, with it’s top competitors such as Nadal, Ferrer and Almagro out for various reasons.  Despite this, Raonic and co still had to win this one.  The big serving Canadian has been known for losing matches he should win in the past, and when Ramos took the first set there was a fear that history might repeat itself.  Alas, Raonic turned out to be the hero as he won his two singles matches, leading Canada into the quarter-finals.  Great effort by him, tough loss for Spain and somewhere on planet earth, Novak Djokovic and his fellow Serbian teammates must be smiling.

Why stop at 7?  Let’s go for 8 next time…

Any one else notice that these matches keep getting longer and longer?  A lot has been said about the direction in which modern day tennis is going, but the length of matches is threatening to become the mantra of this generation of players.  Granted, a lot of it is pulsating stuff, but no matter how riveting a match is, it’s pretty tough keeping one’s attention for the nether side of four hours, talk less of seven.  I think it’s time the issue of no breaker fifth sets is revisited.  If that particular aspect of the game was valid in the past, it isn’t now for a lot of reasons such as the speed of the court, racquet technology, the improved fitness and physicality of the game to name a few factors. 

It’s the slow part of the early season before things ramp up again with the indoor tournaments leading up to the first Masters of the year.  While enjoying the downtime, I hope the Davis Cup has giving everyone else a few interesting thoughts as well.  Feel free to share.  Adios for now.

Beware The Lance Armstrong Moment

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Lance Armstrong was the holder of seven Tour de France titles until last year

Everything under the sun is eventually revealed.

Okay maybe not everything, but eventually most things are.  This one frankly came as no surprise.  I am not an avid follower of cycling, and as such there are only two names I know.  Alberto Contador, and Lance Armstrong.  Both are successful cyclists.  Both have reached the apex of the sport… and both have doped to do it.  One of the stand out moments of Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey for me, was when she asked this question:

In your opinion, was it humanly possible to win the Tour de France, without doping?  Seven times in a row.

Lance Armstrong took all of two seconds and responded rather concisely:

Not in my opinion.

He gave a halfhearted tense smile, right after.  The question, the response, and the smile that followed, said it all.  In the aftermath of the Lance Armstrong doping saga, I’ve read a lot of articles and comments, as well as listened to a lot of people express their opinions on the issue.  The prevalent response has been shock, disappointment, anger and a clamor for justice.  However, there has also been a different contrasting response that questions the first.  That contrasting response can be summed up in one imaginary yet highly realistic sentence.  Did you really think it was possible to achieve such success without doping?  Lance Armstrong’s smile seemed to be saying exactly this.  Yes, this is a tragedy.  Very much so.

What is it about an athlete that pulls us the fans to them?  What makes some of us declare ourselves fans of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray or anyone else for that matter.  Is it their style of play or the facets of their personality we see?  Is it their trials, struggles and triumphs?  There’s something about a great story that has always appealed to us humans.  We scream out in support for the underdog that becomes a hero or the budding talent that finally justifies his or her potential.  We celebrate the success of these athletes because we can identify with or at least imagine the hard work and dedication that goes into achieving it.  We know that talent can only take one but so far.  These players become sources of inspiration to some of us and maybe even idols.  Lance Armstrong was such an athlete.  His story could have been written by Disney.  When a man overcomes a life-threatening ailment such as cancer, starts a foundation geared towards helping others who fight the disease and goes on to win one of the biggest tournaments in his sport seven times in a row, he becomes more than a celebrity.  He becomes an icon.  As such, when catastrophic discoveries such as this are made, it isn’t just the athlete and those affiliated with him that suffer, the sport suffers as well.  As much as people love to pull for those who rise from obscurity to become heroes and heroines, they don’t like being lied to either.  For Lance Armstrong fans, kids who imagined themselves someday winning the Tour de France, one can only imagine the devastation.

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Widely accepted as the golden era of tennis, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray have combined to win every major contested since Juan Martin Del Potro won the U.S open in 2009

As the dust settles on the corpse of Lance Armstrong’s image, and the microscope of doping authorities shift to figures such as Fuentes, us tennis fans may have to come to terms with an increasingly relevant question.  What if tennis has a Lance Armstrong moment?  Picture one of the big four seating in Armstrong’s chair, across from Oprah as the sun finally casts its light on the truth.  Scary isn’t it?  Is it possible to achieve success on the magnitude of Armstrong’s without doping or does that smirk of Armstrong hold more truth to it than we think?  Students of the second school of thought, the one that accepts the reality of doping in any sport, will tell you that it is naive to think one can be so consistently good without some ‘help’.  Recently Novak Djokovic had to deal with questions about his recovery process, in the aftermath of his grueling five-setter against Stan Wawrinka at the recently concluded Australian Open.  Time and time again, Rafael Nadal has been accused at least by the fans of doping.  In my opinion, all of these accusations are baseless and unfair.  If there is no concrete proof then none are guilty.

It was not too long ago Yannick Noah was being crucified by the press for – at the time – launching a baseless accusation at Spanish athletes in general, attributing their recent success over the past decade in sports to doping.  If it sounded like the crazed remark of a bitter former French champion then, operacion puerto is giving it a bit of an air of sanity.  Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes has been linked to other sports beyond cycling, including soccer and tennis.  One hopes that our top athletes have towed a straight line on their journey to the summit.  One hopes that they have considered the roles they have earned themselves in the public eye as well as the responsibility to represent the sport positively.  However as pessimists and skeptics will tell you while flashing an Armstrong like smile, you can never rule out the possibility. 

Beware the Lance Armstrong moment.