My Sportsman: Novak Djovokic
Before sparking up YouTube, here's some context: It's the semifinals of the U.S. Open, the last of the year's Major events, the four tentpoles of the tennis season. Novak Djokovic has been a dominating force in 2011. It's the second weekend in September and he has lost two matches the entire year, on pace to turn in the most dominating men's tennis season in the Open Era. At this juncture, though, he is trailing the great Roger Federer in the fifth set. He is a point from a defeat that would not only bounce him from the tournament, but would sound the death knell on his claim to the greatest season ever. (Winning two Grand Slam titles in one year is nothing to despair; but, heck, as recently as 2010 Rafael Nadal won three.) Oh, we forgot to add this: Federer is serving. So here we go. Federer rocks back, uncoils his frame and.....
Then we had Rafael Nadal, who may have lacked Federer's artistry and style but competed as though each loss carried a price in blood -- only to morph back into a decent, courteous, down-to-earth guy once the match ended. And now we have a third guy come along and practically run the table on the entire year, winning matches as if buying bulk at Costco? "Pretty incredible these last few years," says Djokovic, "isn't it?" What's made Djokovic's year particularly incredible -- and made him particularly worthy of being named the 2011 Sportsman of the Year -- is the presence of the other two guys. Djokovic won on every surface, on four different continents. He's won in blowouts; he's won tight matches. But perhaps above all, he's done so with Federer and Nadal as contemporaries. In the past, when players have won relentlessly, the cynical response goes like this: "Yeah, but who's his competition?" In Djokovic's case, you can hardly say that. He was 10-1 in 2011 against two of the best players ever to draw breath. And 60-5 against everyone else. Which bring us back to that screaming forehand return. It's as good a metaphor as any for Djokovic's year. For much of his career, he was the annoying puppy, occasionally biting the ankles of Federer and Nadal. He was consigned to years of being No. 3, face pressed to the glass, a talented player of questionable heart who appeared to have been born at the wrong time. Yet, before the start of 2011 -- galvanized by Serbia's Davis Cup triumph, according to the narrative -- he decided to make his move. He embraced fitness. He disavowed gluten. He tinkered with his equipment. In short, not unlike that defining forehand return, he sized up his career, and went for broke. Eyes wide open, this time, he took his chances and swung away.
The results don't just speak for themselves. They whistle.