Novak Djokovic has never heard of “Gumby”.
A child journalist chosen by the USTA to serve as a “children’s caster” asked Djokovic on Friday’s US Open media day which nickname he preferred – “Gumby” or “Spiderman.”
Djokovic was called both by tennis connoisseurs. Pundits have long been trying to figure out what made the Serbian – on the verge of becoming the first male player to finish the Grand Slam in 52 years – so dominant.
Rod Laver was the last to win all four majors in a calendar year, in 1969, and Don Budge is the other man to achieve the feat.
The possibility of that accomplishment even surpassed Djokovic’s other potential milestone – setting the all-time record for most major titles, breaking his tie Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. If he conquers Flushing Meadows for the fourth time in his career, he will be all alone with 21.
Djokovic’s game is difficult to define – which is part of the reason why Federer and Nadal have always been at the center of discussions about ‘GOAT’ in men’s tennis.
“[Federer is] the most beautiful player I have ever watched, ”said John McEnroe.
Djokovic is not known for supersonic service like Peter Sampras. He doesn’t have the grace or flair of Laver or Federer, whose sliced one-handed backhand and top-spin cross forehand are poetic. He also lacks left-hander McEnroe’s artful serve and volley game.
Djokovic, too, doesn’t have Nadal’s raw bulldog forehand power. But what the Serbian has are all the intangibles – including pitch cover – the anticipation, the reflex and the flexibility to hit shots that seem unimaginable. Therefore, Gumby – the green clay animated figure stretching in all directions.
At the press conference, another reporter Googled a “Gumby” image on his cell phone to show Djokovic.
“I’m just seeing what Gumby is,” Djokovic said. “Stretch green. Yeah, that sounds like fun.
Oh, it’s been a ball of fun for Djokovic since 2011, when he started pouncing on Federer and Nadal by winning three of the four majors that year. As he looks to overtake them during the US Open fortnight, tennis insiders believe the 34-year-old is also on track to break Margaret Court’s record of 24 majors.
“Flexibility, no one has ever been so flexible as I know,” said Hall of Fame member Pam Shriver of ESPN. “Hell, the Olympic gymnasts made him pose at the Olympics.”
Main Russian contender Daniil Medvedev said it isn’t always easy to pinpoint that one thing that makes Djokovic great.
“If I had to pick just one, I would probably say movement,” Medvedev said. “But then, of course, that’s it. I played a lot of games with him. You are going to have tactics. He will have prepared them well. With him, every match is a new story.
“I remember the Australian Open, when I lost to him [two different times]. At one point in the game I felt like I was just playing on his backhand and trying to get him to play a lot of balls. This tactic has worked quite well. The next game I would try to do the same and he would destroy me. He is possibly one of the most complete players in tennis history – backhand, forehand, return. [His] serving is also not bad.
Improving his health and fitness became a big deal for Djokovic during his turnaround in 2011, when he won his first US Open title. Prior to 2011, Djokovic only had one Grand Slam title – at the Australian Open in 2007.
Djokovic was clearly Federer and Nadal’s third wheel across all categories, including the fan base.
In 2010, Djokovic learned he had a gluten allergy which could affect his strength. So in 2011, his new diet cut gluten – pasta, beer, cookies, cereals and his vice-candy, Twizzlers.
Nineteen of his 20 major wins have come since then, but there was more than diet and fitness to becoming the world’s best tennis player: there were mind games and match tactics. .
Along the way, Djokovic employed two good coaches – legend Boris Becker and currently Goran Ivanisevic. In 2018, he also brought back his first trainer, Marian Vajda.
Ivanisevic, a former Wimbledon champion, is credited with improving Djokovic’s reserve game.
“In fact, a lot of people underestimate his volleys,” Ivanisevic said. “He’s not a serve volleyball player. He’ll never be a serve volleyball player. But he enjoys playing doubles. He has very solid volleys and has improved them over the past two years.
As Shriver noted, “He’s looking at every little thing possible that could tinker with any part of his game that could help him. He seems to look at some unusual things a bit more to gain just a little edge. “
Djokovic’s resilience under pressure is also unmatched. Andy Roddick noted on the Tennis Channel last week that no one goes from defense to attack faster than Djokovic does in one fell swoop.
“Novak is so strong mentally,” said Randy Walker, former USTA spokesperson and principal publisher of tennis books. “Look how many times he came back from two sets to love and match point to win so many big games.”
In the 2010 and 2011 US Open semi-finals, Djokovic hit back with two match points each time to knock out Federer. In the Wimbledon 2019 final against Federer, Djokovic survived two more match points to win five hours and five sets.
In this year’s Roland Garros final against Stefanos Tsitsipas, the Serbian nerves of steel won out again and he recovered from a 2-0 deficit to win in five sets. It came 48 hours after his historic semi-final victory, when he dethroned clay-court pivot Nadal, whose Roland Garros record was 105-2.
Djokovic’s record against Federer is 27-23 and has a 30-28 advantage over Nadal.
“He’s amazing,” Ivanisevic said. “Every day something new, something better, better. You have to kill the guy 27 times and he gets up anyway and you have to kill him again and he gets up.
After the Roland-Garros title on June 13, Djokovic knew that a Grand Slam was a real possibility. Seven more wins at Flushing Meadows and the tennis GOAT debate may be moot.
“It’s easier said than done,” McEnroe said. “There’s a reason it hasn’t been done for 52 years. It’s really difficult. We’ll see how he does it. He manages [pressure] about as good as anyone I have ever seen in the last 10 years of his career. I think he’s ready for now.