By Matt Cronin
TORONTO - Tennis players face pressure every day from a variety of places, but when a competitor has achieved God-like status in his own country and is not only expected to medal in the Olympics but bring home the gold, it can take on new proportions.
That's what US Open champion Novak Djokovic faced in London as his small yet ambitious nation of Serbia struggled to grab hardware of any kind. Then the former No. 1 lost in the bronze medal match to Juan Martin Del Potro, leaving the Games with little to show for his efforts.
"It's hard for me to speak. Serbia, I’m sorry. I ask people in our country to forgive me that I didn't manage to win a medal," Djokovic told his national press.
Like the experience of other great players, Djokovic was bound to come back down to earth a little after he won four of five majors from the start of the 2011 through the 2012 Australian Open, when he outlasted Rafael Nadal in a record-setting five setter.
He played well enough on hard courts afterward, winning the prestigious title in Miami, but then when he got on to clay, his confidence began to slip a bit. Nadal once again took over on dirt, winning Monte Carlo, Rome and Roland Garros, where he belted Djokovic in a wild four-setter, the first time in five majors that he had managed to upend the Serbian.
Then came Wimbledon, where as defending champion, Djokovic went down to now seven-time champion Roger Federer in four sets in the semis. At the Olympics, he lost to Olympic gold medalist Andy Murray in the semifinals.
"For me it was disappointing to lose in semifinals and obviously for bronze medal match," said Djokovic. "But I was glad to see [Murray] winning it because he really deserves it after all he has been through. I had great matches in Wimbledon and Olympic Games. Maybe I would wish to go at least step further on those events, but you can't always have it all. There are so many great tennis players around, and I had opponents that played better than me. It's not the first time or the last time you lose. You have to try to be stronger and learn from those experiences."
After his loss at the Olympics, Djokovic’s first coach, Jelena Gencic, said that her former student had some personal problems that he was not discussing that were affecting his performances. Djokovic would not address what those issues were in at the Rogers Cup in Toronto, but he did venture that he’s dealing with them.
"Everybody has one, so it's normal," he said. "You're going through ups and downs and through difficult stages in your life and something that is a challenge in life, and you need to overcome it and try to become even stronger after that."
Last season after taking out Nadal in the Wimbledon final, Djokovic won the Canadian Open with wins over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Mardy Fish. He then went to Cincinnati and somehow managed to reach the final, which is no easy feat in the mid-summer heat. There he finally wilted in the final, retiring in the second set against Murray.
But despite that, he came into the US Open as the favorite as his powerful, fast, and relentless style had become nearly impossible to contend with. His attack was airtight and the only way to defeat him was to find away to hit around and through him.
Federer nearly did in the semifinals, but Djokovic hit two remarkable shots down match points and came through in five sets (for the second year in a row against the great Swiss). In the finals, he wore down the seemingly tireless Nadal.
During last season and in the first quarter of 2012, Djokovic believed that he would hit the lines in big points and find away to come back from near death. During the clay court season he lost a little of that self-belief. So now he has to put his hard hat on and work his way back into an ultra confident mode.
This week as the defending champion in Toronto, the 25-year-old Djokovic overcame young Aussie Bernard Tomic. On Friday he was up a set over American Sam Querrey before the rain drenched the courts again.
With Federer, Nadal and Murray having pulled out, he’s the favorite to win the tournament, but he didn’t reach world No. 1 by putting victories in his mental pocket before he actually went out and achieved them.
But put aside his ‘average" clay and grass court season and reflect on what he’s accomplished on North American hard courts since the 2011 Canadian Open: He sports an incredible 27-2 match record. Should he win the Emirate Airline US Open Series tournaments in Toronto and do well in Cincinnati again, he’s certainly a US Open favorite.
"It's hard to expect that you can always win every single match that you play in six months. That's really hard to repeat that," he said. " But just knowing that I can play that well and win that many tournaments on different surfaces gives me a lot of confidence. I got into this season really successful winning Australian Open and Miami, and played three, four finals on clay courts and played finals in French Open. So, for me I had a great season. Hard court being probably my most successful and preferred surface gives me confidence that I can start off well here. Hopefully I can carry it on for next events, and most important one in US Open."