Novak Djokovic's Australian Open win last month has vaulted him into the elite -- rare air considering that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had won the last 11 Grand Slam events.
What's it like when a person wins his or her first Grand Slam singles victory? Pete Sampras has often referred to his own first Slam singles title, the 1990 U.S. Open, as "two weeks of zoning. I was just a pup. I didn't really know what I was doing, but just caught fire."
But Djokovic's breakthrough has been quite the opposite. No shotmaker like Sampras, his game is an assemblage of pieces, bit by bit emerging into exemplary craftsmanship.
And the reason for that owes a great deal to the fact that Djokovic was taught to play tennis by a woman.
Little is known of Jelena Gencic as a tennis player. She played four Fed Cup matches for Yugoslavia in 1973 and is now 71 years old. Other players she helped from that region include Monica Seles and Goran Ivanisevic. Gencic began working with Djokovic when he was 7. Five years later, Gencic suggested Djokovic head to Germany to be mentored by another former Yugoslavian pro, Nikki Pilic.
But Gencic had laid the foundation. The fingerprints of a female coach are apparent in every step Djokovic takes on the court. Young Novak was clearly instructed with exquisite discipline. Watch the way he carefully measures his groundstrokes, efficiently using his entire body to turn and strike. Pay attention to the way he uses small steps -- sculpted footwork as distinct from blazing footspeed (though that comes into play when necessary). Even the serve, right down to the occasionally excessive ball-bouncing, represents the triumph of deliberate technique over excessive power.
Added to this is an acute awareness of space and time. "You can just see how much he understands how the game and the entire court work," said ESPN analyst Mary Carillo during the Australian Open.
Djokovic understands how to mix vary paces, balancing prudence with risk -- just as Gencic no doubt taught him as a child when she and he conducted for hours on end the repetitive drills that constitute the essential labor of an aspiring pro. "She set the standards for me," Djokovic said during his Grand Slam title run. "She gave me an idea of what it was going to take to be the very best."
In the Australian Open finals, for example, after losing the first set to an inspired Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Djokovic gradually began hitting harder -- but not excessively so. As he said following the match, "I just was trying to keep my focus, remain the consistency, the high level of game; try to wait for my opportunities, and then when I get them, you know, I should use them right away, which I did."
He's not the first male to have been taught by a female. In the contemporary game, Andy Murray's mother Judy built his foundation -- another case of a player who knows that tennis is more a game of movement, balance and variety than one of sheer power.
But an even more successful female-male combo was that of Jimmy Connors and his mother, Gloria. "My mother's approach was for me to keep it simple -- to have compact strokes that could go deep and open up the court for me to end the point," Connors has said. "It's a women's game inside a man's body."
The same model holds true for Djokovic. His exquisite balance makes it easy for him to drive balls and recover efficiently, most notably, for example, when he strikes his forehand on his outside foot and briskly shuffles back for the next ball. Djokovic rarely lashes at a ball, scarcely fights it, but instead lets it arrive in the proper spot so he can take a smooth, unrushed swing -- and be properly in place for the next shot.
Sharp balance and cogent movement apply a special kind of pressure on an opponent -- the sense with Djokovic is that he has rarely been hurt by an incoming shot. It's a distinctive weapon, different than the blinding speed and intensity of Nadal, closer in some ways to the regal tranquility of Federer, but also, as with all champions, distinctly the province of Djokovic.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.