Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Streak Watch: Winning combination
By Ravi Ubha
PARIS -- A combination of factors has led to Novak Djokovic's sizzling 40-match winning streak.
He has discussed at length how winning December's Davis Cup boosted his confidence, and determining he was allergic to gluten led to dietary changes, apparently resolving many of his health issues.
The serve is working, and Djokovic is being aggressive from the baseline, not content just to use his great retrieving skills.
Marian Vajda, Djokovic's jovial coach, dwelled on the Serb's unblemished season after Monday's demolition of Thiemo de Bakker in the first round of the French Open.
Some players mature faster than others; some never do. Djokovic, who turned 24 on Sunday, doesn't get as down as he used to.
The next time the crowd is against him, and it could be in the fourth round against Frenchman Richard Gasquet, odds are he probably won't sulk.
Vajda: "He's very strong and focused, not comparable to years ago. He was negative. Now he's positive. He doesn't give you free points. A couple of years ago he lost a couple of [matches] because he was upset. He found a way to [get over] it."
Not lingering behind the baseline means Djokovic is taking the ball earlier on both sides, able to use the pace off opponents' shots and take away their time. The forehand has gotten special attention and become a weapon.
It is tied into his improved conditioning.
Vajda: "When we started to prepare for the Australian Open, I told him he has to have a faster forehand. I gave him an exercise to make it faster, and during practice sessions and matches, he sped it up a bit more. It's not only the hands but the legs. He's very agile and flexible and so he can reach everything, but he has to use his legs. From that, he gets the power because without the legs, he can't get the power.
"He improved his fitness. If you look at [the] last two years, he was more skinny. Now he has muscles. His endurance is more, and he's able to get to every ball. This is great. He's moving this way [up and back] much better, this way [side to side] he always moved very good."
A clearer vision
No, we're not talking about Djokovic's issues with his contact lenses. Rather, this relates to Vajda being Djokovic's sole coach.
Former Grand Slam finalist Todd Martin briefly joined the team last year, trying to better Djokovic's serve. It didn't quite work.
Vajda: "There was bad communication. It was really counterproductive. He went down with the serve; he couldn't serve last year. It was terrible. Everything was tough.
"Novak never had the impression to [avoid] work, but the communication was different. Todd was a big player and also wanted to try something new. But Novak was all set up, he only [needed] small improvements.
"Last year, I [talked to him] about the serve before the clay season. But it took him a couple of months to improve. He got results, even though he didn't have a serve mostly for two or three months. Now, the technique is better. Nice, relaxing, he's doing it the right way now."
Ana Ivanovic, the former world No. 1, spoke recently about the fine line that exists between players and coaches. If the relationship is too friendly, the coach can shirk responsibilities; if it's too strict, the player won't feel comfortable.
Vajda thinks he has found the right balance with Djokovic.
Vajda: "Obviously, the relationship is very deep. He takes me almost as a family member. For a long time, the relationship has been great. I'm more free to tell him things because I know him and his family. I don't have to be strictly professional, even though I try.
"And he likes the way I'm behaving -- I'm like a brother, father, coach. Sometimes, I have to tell him the truth. Before, I was professional; now, I'm more relaxed."
Djokovic will try for 41 straight wins Wednesday against Victor Hanescu.
Odds are Vajda will still be relaxed when that one is over.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.