November 15, 2009

With the Help of a Master

Back in August Novak Djokovic announced that he had recruited former world #4 Todd Martin to be part of his coaching staff. Today he received further proof of just what a great decision that was.

Martin was one of those great American players in an era dominated by Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier. In a career that spanned fourteen years, Todd won eight titles and played in the finals at both the U.S. and Australian Opens. He also racked up a handful of doubles championships, most recently with James Blake in the 2002 Cincinnati Masters. While he was never able to break into the top spot of the sport, he's hoping to help Novak do just that.

It wasn't that Djokovic was having a particularly bad year before Martin came on board. He made the finals at three straight Masters events during the spring, defeating Roger Federer twice on the way, and won a couple of titles in Dubai and Belgrade. But the winner of the 2008 title in Melbourne and the year-end championship last year failed to dominate in January. He retired during the quarters in Australia and dropped in straight sets in the third round at Roland Garros. He just couldn't seem to get it done in the big tournaments.

But there's something different in Nole's step in the months since Todd came on. He got to the semis in New York, his best Slam performance all year, and followed up a month later with a title in Beijing where he only lost one set. That helped bring him back up to #3 in the world, a ranking Andy Murray took away from him in May. Then, of course, was his phenomenal victory last week in Basel, where he dethroned three-time defending champion Roger Federer in his homeland.

This week in Paris, the last Masters 1000 event of the year, Djokovic faced a field just as intimidating as at any slam. But after a long quarterfinal match against French Open finalist Robin Soderling, he absolutely dominated Rafael Nadal in the semis.

In today's match Novak faced another hometown favorite in Gael Monfils, another formidable opponent looking to make a name for himself on the big stage. But despite being outserved -- the six-foot-four Frenchman shot off twelve aces to Djokovic's two -- and squandering a 3-0 lead in the second set, Novak kept his cool in a third set tiebreak, claiming his fifth title of the year after nearly three hours on the court.

So how much of Nole's recent performance is due to his innate talent and how much to the watchful eyes of Todd Martin? It's hard to say -- at least so soon. But you can certainly see the improvement in the Serb's groundstrokes and his power, and is ability not to linger on lost opportunities is a testament to a better on-court attitude. When he travels to London next week to defend his year-end title -- and to try for his third championship in a row -- we could see just how much Martin is helping his fitness and strength.

And if he can bring that momentum into next year, well, then we'll really have something to talk about!

No comments: