As Andy Murray will recognise, every top player has to go through some sort of heartbreak in order to fulfil their true potential. In fact, it is often a crushing defeat that triggers the stubborn, almost obsessional focus possessed by the great champions.
In the case of Novak Djokovic, that moment came at the French Open almost three years ago. In a quarter-final against Austria’s Jürgen Melzer, he was the almost unbackable favourite – the third seed about to take on the world No 27. But despite leading by two sets and a break, he let the match slip away.
“That was the turnaround, mentally,” said Djokovic’s coach Marian Vajda. “After that defeat, he convinced himself that he had to work harder.
“I started working with him in 2006,” Vajda told Telegraph Sport, “and I remember that he said, 'I really will be No 1, I really feel for that.’ Then he won his first major in Melbourne in 2008. But he had difficulty backing it up. He was always great, he was No 3 in the world, but he wasn’t patient. He said, 'When, when, when?’ I said, 'It takes time, you have to work on this and this and this. When you get it together everything will be fine.’
“I told him not to rush but there was a period in 2009 when he did start rushing and he was not believing. It was not a good year, it was up and down.
"He asked Todd Martin to help him improve his serve, because at that time he had no serve, and his forehand was short. But if you are somebody who can win matches without a serve and without big powerful strokes, it shows that you are so mentally strong.
“When Todd came it was counter-productive. We were splitting the weeks between him and me. This process didn’t go well. Somehow Todd didn’t recognise Novak as a holistic person.
"The chemistry wasn’t there. I was back-stage. I was waiting. I didn’t want to leave because I understand that coaching is a process. I stayed patient because I know with Novak’s talent he wanted to try so much, and he is open. He had a great base but he just wanted to adjust some small things.
“Even after he came back to me I wanted to work more and he was sometimes escaping. But then when we came to the court, he was focused, he was winning the important points, basically he was a fighter, he would never give up any ball. And then, after he lost to Melzer from two sets up in 2010, he looked at himself. Since then, he has had the momentum.”
Serbia’s Davis Cup win at the end of 2010 is usually seen as the moment when Djokovic blossomed. It certainly gave him a huge emotional boost, a reminder of the unbridled joy he had experienced here in Melbourne at the age of just 20. But Djokovic himself agrees with Vajda that the Melzer meltdown was a turning point.
“It did change things,” Djokovic said. “I remember 2010 as a very special year in my career because the first six months were very difficult in terms of results and also my health was pretty bad. I won a title in Dubai but beside that my game was not there, I changed my serve technique. I had a lot of mental issues. Every single pro athlete has to go through this crisis period in his career.
“I lost that match and then from Wimbledon on, in the second part of the year, I started playing much better and being more confident on the court. I felt I got a huge relief mentally rather than anything else. My serve was coming back, and then the Davis Cup title came at the right moment for myself and my country and all of my colleagues, because that’s when I got a strong wind in my back, and it switched momentum.
“For four years, I had been the No 3 of the world, but still I felt like I hadn’t reached my full potential. I felt I could maximise that potential in years to come and then I have made that – as my coach said – crucial switch in my head and my mentality. And from there it all came together.”
With six grand slam titles already under his belt, Djokovic is more than delivering on his early promise. Murray and the other members of the 'Big Four’ could be forgiven for wondering why, on that critical day in Paris, Melzer could not simply have thrown in the towel.
Nice article. Defeats makes champions and ability to learn from mistakes.