The Philosophical Mind Of Novak Djokovic

WASHINGTON, August 26, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

Attending a Novak Djokovic virtual press conference via Zoom is a little bit like theater. Sure, we know what the World No. 1 can do on a tennis court where his racquet does his talking and his athleticism continues to amaze us. However, few of his legion of fans around the world are ever privy to sit down and share a chat with him. If they did, they would see how articulate and engaging he is – and philosophical, too.

Tennis TourTalk enjoyed that opportunity Monday after his second-round win against qualifier Ricardas Berankis of Lithuania in the Western & Southern Open in New York. Although Djokovic appeared a little tired following his one hour and 41-minute straight set win – and in between sets he had his neck readjusted by a trainer – he was in a good mood with the US Open looming on the horizon. Djokovic recognized some familiar faces and names that were in the virtual interview room. Those he didn’t, like this reporter, he was just as polite. When I spoke to him after his next match the following day, he addressed me by name when I asked him about his neck.

On Monday, I was interested to know this from Novak:

With everything that’s gone on this season with COVID, with the hiatus – and now that you’re restarting the season albeit with not fans – is it challenging or difficult just to be about to go out on the court at each match and focus on, you know, the fundamentals of playing tennis and to get enjoyment out of it and try to put everything aside for a few hours while you’re out there?

Novak’s answer to my question spoke volumes about himself and I appreciated the time he took to articulate his thoughts.

“It is a challenge, but I think this is what we all have to accept and embrace, as difficult or strange as it feels and looks to all of us being here in the bubble without a crowd and, you know, as I said, being in the circumstances that are quite different and unusual from what we are used to, but hopefully it’s only a temporary thing.

“I mean, I can only speak on my own behalf. You know, of course it is strange. After a good point, you don’t really have clapping or you don’t get that energy from the crowd, that exchange that you’re used to, but in the other hand, I didn’t feel that it was so tough for me to focus on the court.

“You know, I mean, I knew coming into this match what I’m going to face, also the quality of the opponent, of course, but just no crowd and so forth, so that’s why I came over to States a week earlier and try to practice and get ready.

“Look, US Open is, you know, is around the corner. We all want to try to get as many matches here in the Western & Southern Open. Obviously, it’s a huge tournament. A good, positive thing, it’s played on the same courts like the US Open obviously without the two big courts involved.

“But as I said, you know, only thing you can do is really accept it and embrace it and try to take the best out of it. You know, I mean, of course I think we all are going to be challenged mentally, emotionally. I think we all go through a different thought process, and when you experience something new, of course your old self or your old habits are kind of, you know, fighting and resisting a little bit, you know.

“But I’m trying to be open-minded and, as I said, accept, because this is the only thing I can do right now.”

During my follow-up question to ask him about his neck, he came back to my original question and added this after thought:

“It felt great to be back competing. You know, six months, this is what all of us, we have been waiting for. Of course, it’s not ideal in terms of conditions and what we have to face, but we are back. You know, tennis is back. I think when you draw a line, it’s very positive thing, considering we’re a global sport.

“I think for us, comparing ourselves to maybe Champions League or European football or American football or NBA, NHL, whatever, golf, it’s really challenging, because we have to travel, you know, every single week literally from one place, from one country to different country, not even to same city or maybe different continent. So many different things you have to make sure are guaranteed for players to have, for example, exemptions and going back to Europe with no quarantine, et cetera, et cetera. Hundreds of different details.

“It’s a whole different game, I mean, for all of us. And these kinds of circumstances are really challenging on so many levels for so many different people, governing bodies and players and coaches and so forth.

“But I think as we go along, we will figure it out. Hopefully we can play out Cincinnati tournament and New York and we all go home happy.”

What they’re thinking

After Tennys Sandgren’s upset of No. 15 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime during Monday’s second round of the Western & Southern Open, the 55th-ranked American wild card admitted this during his virtual press conference: “Today, it crossed my mind a couple of times when the match wasn’t going my way or I was down. I was thinking, ‘Dude, you are going to be [annoyed at] yourself again if you don’t find a way to pull this one out, because you are going to get another opportunity to play one of the best ever.’

“Anytime that is on the table, I think it is enjoyable because that is why you do the training. That is why you put yourself out there, to test yourself. It is a blessing to be able to play against someone who is going to be one of the all-time greats.”

Before Sandgren faced World No. 1 and top seed Novak Djokovic during Tuesday’s round of 16, he said:

“We are used to playing with nobody and we are used to not having that outside stimuli of people watching you, that extra pressure of eyes on you, which is very tangible. At the same time, those guys are also magicians at getting themselves mentally up and prepared for matches. While I think it might be easier for someone like me, someone like Novak is extremely gifted at playing mental games with himself. I don’t think he is really going to have a problem getting up for these matches. 

“Once he has committed to come and play, I think he is going to be fully in it. When you are able to hear somebody’s name and then change it to your own name in a match, I think you are probably pretty gifted at the mental side of the sport.”

Sandgren lost to Djokovic, 6-2, 6-4.

What they’re saying

French No. 2 Caroline Garcia, ranked 49th, beat No. 37 Sloane Stephens in straight sets on Sunday, then lost to No. 59 Victoria Azarenka, also in straight sets, the day after. Following her victory against the 2017 US Open champion Stephens, Garcia was asked if she welcomes playing against tough competition so close to a major. “Yeah, and anyway, I’m here to go back to the competition. I’m here to play matches. When you play a big player, top player, even if they are maybe in the ranking anymore not top player, it’s good matches. And they are matches I want to play, the matches I train for. 

“So I’m really excited to play these ones. And I will learn, anyway. It goes either way, I will learn a lot and I will be able to get ready for the US Open and the next tournament even better.”

Garcia will enter next week’s US Open with a 5-7 win-loss record.

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