Novak Djokovic and the Art of Winning Ugly

Psychologist Allen Fox once said, “Tennis takes place in the pretty venues, but at heart, the sport is a confrontational, one-on-one battle.”

At the picturesque Rod Laver Arena on Tuesday, Novak Djokovic and Alexander Zverev were engaged in the same confrontational battle of survival. Neither player played their absolute best tennis, but as so often we have seen in Novak Djokovic’s career, he once again found a way to win the Points That Matter.

Entering the match, the focus was on Djokovic’s abdominal injury and how it would hold up against another top opponent. The start wasn’t the best for Djokovic as he got broken in the match’s first service game. He did eventually break back in the first set only to go on and lose the tiebreak. He bounced back and comfortably won the second set. The third set was a see-saw affair as Zverev ran away to a 4-1 lead, only for him to start spraying errors inexplicably.

Djokovic won 5 games in a row to take the 3rd set, 6-4. The 4th set started on a similar note to the 3rd set, with Zverev moving to a 3-0 lead only for Djokovic to break back. Zverev then saw a set point come and go in the 12th game before Djokovic wrapped up the victory with an ace to win the 4th set tiebreak and match.

The stats don’t make for excellent viewing for either of the players, with Djokovic making 56 unforced errors, Zverev hitting 38 unforced errors, well above what their usual numbers tend to be. By all metrics, it wasn’t an immaculate match from either player.

However, that’s where the Greats separate themselves from the Good. The ability to win Big important matches despite not playing your best is an extremely underrated and important facet in a top athlete’s career. Djokovic is arguably the best at winning exactly those types of matches.

Winning a tennis match does not necessarily mean one player dominated the other. Most tennis matches, when broken down by total points played, are usually separated by few percentages. In this match, Djokovic won 51.7% of the points, only 3.4% more than Zverev(only 10 points more). Djokovic has made a career out of winning tight matches like this one.

Call it mental toughness, call it opponent choking, call it Djokovian clutchness. The fact is Novak Djokovic wins these tight matches far more often than he loses them. In the 4th set, Djokovic faced 7 breakpoints. All of his service games in the set went to Deuce. After getting broken in the first game, he saved all the next six breakpoints. He made first serves in all six points, and none of the rallies on those breakpoints extended beyond 5 shots. Djokovic, under pressure, found the pattern and the shots he needed to. Again.

Brad Gilbert says Winning Ugly is not about how it looks. It is about finding and unearthing every resource to win. It is about doing whatever it takes, playing outside your comfort zone to win. Novak Djokovic epitomizes this better than any other player. It’s not only the will and the determination to win. It’s the clarity of mind, of knowing exactly what to do in pressure moments, and then the flawless execution in those Big Moments.

Winning Ugly is about winning the Big Points while not being at your best. Winning Ugly is when a player wins the last point of the match where the last point could have very easily been won by the other player.

Novak Djokovic has not been anywhere near his best in this Australian Open. He has spent 14 hours and 51 minutes on court en route to the semifinals. That’s the most he has ever spent on court. He has dropped 5 sets so far, which is, again, the most he has ever dropped before the semis. Yet, Novak Djokovic is in the semifinals of the Australian Open.

He has never lost one, and if he does go on to win a record-extending 9th Australian Open title, it will undoubtedly be one of his sweetest victories. Not just because he would be the best player in the tournament, but because he would have once again done what he does best – Win Ugly.