MELBOURNE- When it comes to recovery, Novak Djokovic has become tennis’ miracle man. Last year at the Australian Open, he and Andy Murray contested a brutal five set match in the semis that went nearly five hours. Two days later, he came back to best Rafael Nadal for the title in a record- setting contest that went nearly six hours.
He’s been nearly as impressive at this year’s Australian Open. He played slightly more than five hours in a highly dramatic win over Stan Wawrinka in the quarters, then came back two days later and ran past sixth seed Tomas Berdych in four sets.
He is seemingly tireless.
“I consider myself fit,” Djokovic said. “I have a great team of people around me that are doing the best they can in their expertise to make me feel ready for physically, mentally, emotionally, every match, every challenge. Obviously, it’s not easy to always be at your 100% fitness. But after a five‑hour match two days ago against Stan, I was quite convinced I could recover for this one. The team did a great job.”
Berdych called him the fittest player on tour. So did Davis Ferrer, who will play him in the semis. That’s a bit surprising since it’s the Spaniard who is often pointed to as a man who almost never tires and can run forever.
“His physical is unbelievable,” Ferrer said. “He’s the best, I think.
What makes Djokovic appear to be so unique to some fans is when they see players such as France’s Gilles Simon win a grueling five set match over Gael Monfils in the same round, and then be barely be able to move in a straight-loss two days later against Andy Murray while the Serbian looked spry.
But perhaps it’s because he and a few others are physical specimens apart.
“There is no more than five or six guys that are truly at an elite fitness level,” said fitness expert Allistair McCaw, who has trained a slew of pros and currently trains Svetlana Kuznetsova. The level of athleticism is the difference today. Sampras, Kraijcek or Becker wouldn’t survive with only a big serve today. These guys were no where near the fitness level of say a Novak, Andy Murray or David Ferrer.”
The Serbian works with physiotherapist Milan Amanovic and Gebhard Phil-Gritsch, who used to work with Austrian Thomas Muster, the 1995 Roland Garros titlist. He employs former Dusan Vemic as his hitting partner.
One would think that after long matches, Djokovic gets a long massage, maybe takes an ice bath, stretched, eats some nutritional food (his gluten free diet has also played a part in his success) and rests. He did offer that he is willing to sleep for 10 hours after long matches.
“The importance of a team effort is essential in this case, Djokovic said. “Definitely in the situations where you play a Grand Slam where you have to be ready for five-hour matches, and then of course if you go through those matches you have to be ready to recover in just a day and a half time. It worked before. We use that necessary experience to implement in this particular situation, and it worked again.”
Djokovic is said by some to stretch every three hours, up to five times a day, He’s also light and when he’s not sliding hard into balls on cement, he seems to glide about the court.
“His body is not getting pounded like a Rafa [Nadal] or a Murray,” said McCaw. “He’s s moving efficiently, not spending the extra energy that the others are. He’s super agile, loose and moves with ease. The future is on the athlete/player learning efficient movement – moving in a way that doesn’t cost more energy over a period of time. It’s almost like having a car running in a more economical way by using less gas.”
Before he began running the table on the tour in 2011, when he won three of the four Grand Slams and reached No.1 for the first time, Djokovic was frequently criticized for retiring too much from matches.
In fact, that criticism went public at the 2008 US Open, when after Tommy Robredo accused Djokovic of exaggerating his injuries after his five-set victory, American And Roddick joked that the much put-upon Djokovic’s injuries and illnesses seemed endless.
“A back and a hip? And a cramp? Bird flu… anthrax… SARS… common cough and cold?” Roddick said with a smile.
But Djokovic wasn’t aware that Roddick only said it in jest, and after pulling off an amazing comeback over the No. 8 seed in the fourth set, Djokovic hit out at Roddick and the crowd during his on-court interview. The fans rained boos down upon the same man they laughed with when he reached the 2007 US Open final and had them in stiches doing impersonations.
“That’s not nice, anyhow, to say in front of this crowd that I have 16 injuries and I am faking it. I have nothing against anybody. Andy was saying that I have 16 injuries in the last match, so obviously I don’t, right? Like it or not, it’s like that. They (the crowd) are already against me because they think I am faking everything, so sorry.”
Djokovic and Roddick would later make up as Roddick told him he was only joking and the Serbian noted that Roddick had been nice to him when he first came on tour, but the criticism did affect him as no player wants to be known to making excuses.
But perhaps it did Djokovic some good, because gradually his number of retirements were reduced to almost zero and he learned to take care of his body better.
That’s one of the primary reasons that despite being a member of one of the most impressive groupings of top men ever with Roger Federer, Nadal and Murray, that by the end of the Australian Open he will have been ranked No. 1 for 66 weeks.
“ At the start of my career I went through a lot of different kinds of challenges physically, mentally,” Djokovic said. “Everybody makes mistakes. I was aware of the fact that I need to improve because I wasn’t feeling well, especially in the heat. I had lots of health issues. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I’m being so cautious and so committed when recovery is in matter because I’ve had bad experiences before in my career and I know what it feels like. I don’t want to go through it again. I am aware of the importance of an everyday practice and recovery basis. So as long as it’s like that, I think I’ll be all right.”