A few years ago, Janko Tipsarevic sat across a table at the Miami Masters and said one of the wisest things this reporter has ever heard. Tipsarevic, fellow countryman and good friend of Serbia’s Novak Djokovic, said that his primary goal in most matches was to win his first three or four service games. “Once it gets to be four-all, or 4-5, the pressure can get to anybody,” Tipsarevic said. “Anybody can choke. Even the great players because everybody is human.”
The relevant point as the U.S. Open approaches is that even iconic players can fall victim to pressure. That brings us to Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, the top singles seeds at the final Grand Slam of the year, who will certainly be feeling a measure of compression in their minds as the tournament unfolds.
This won’t be the kind of pressure than can be wiped away with a clutch service return winner, or an ace down the T at 30-40. It will be a more general, unfocused kind of pressure, and one that both of them will have every right to resent and may even deny feeling.
Pressure. It’s an occupational hazard for great players, and one they bring upon themselves when, in the case of someone like Djokovic, they make a few missteps at Wimbledon and the Olympics.
Just two months ago, the talk of tennis was the odds on Djokovic completing a calendar-year Grand Slam in 2016. Now we’re wondering if he didn’t take his foot off the gas too soon and set himself up for an ambush.
Despite completing a career Slam at the French Open just a few months ago, Djokovic will be looking to regroup in time for the U.S. Open. At the next tournament he played after Roland Garros, Wimbledon, he took a third-round loss to Sam Querrey and left the impression that all was not well in his well-organized life (he said as much, then refused to talk further about it). The mystery deepened when Djokovic absorbed first-round losses in singles and doubles at the Rio Olympics. Those disappointments left the volubly patriotic star and ordinarily steely player in tears. Four years is a long time to wait for an opportunity, only to make a hash of it.
Andy Murray has lived a similar dream with greater success. He thrilled his tennis-hungry British cohorts by winning Wimbledon for the second time and adding another gold medal (in singles) to the nation’s Olympic medal count. His accomplishments grabbed headlines and put Djokovic’s career Grand Slam in the shade. In the blink of an eye, Murray became the hot hand going into New York.
But Djokovic has one advantage. He’s made peace with the reality of pressure. In fact, he authored one of the better quotes on the subject when he said, at the onset of Wimbledon: “Pressure is part of what we do. It's inevitable to face this kind of sensation as a top player.”
Djokovic won’t have Roger Federer to worry about at Flushing Meadows; the Swiss icon is out for the year. Rafael Nadal is on the comeback trail, but Djokovic has a seven-match winning streak against him. Cliff Drysdale, ESPN’s dean of tennis commentators, gives Djokovic a “55 to 45” percent edge as a favorite over Murray. That slender margin speaks volumes.
Williams and Djokovic receive pressure differently. They respond to it differently. Djokovic tries to demystify it with rational discourse: “Expectations are always there from myself and from the people around me,” he once said. “I think that's normal and logical to expect that.” Williams tries to deny or turn her back on it, acknowledging only the pressure she puts on herself, perhaps not recognizing it may amount to one and the same thing.