Novak Djokovic is coming off a year of success rarely seen in tennis, and his three nearest rivals are altering their games to try to make sure there is no repeat.
Djokovic, 24, grabbed the No. 1 ranking on the ATP World Tour and a record $12.6 million in prize money last year, and the players chasing him reacted. No. 2-ranked Rafael Nadal added weight to his racket, No. 3 Roger Federer of Switzerland took six weeks off after losing to Djokovic at the U.S. Open to recover mentally, and No. 4 Andy Murray hired eight-time Grand Slam champion Ivan Lendl as his coach.
“When a guy has an epic season like Djokovic had, you’re going to see a few guys make a push to do something different to try to catch him,” Brad Gilbert, who coached Andre Agassi to six Grand Slam titles, said in a telephone interview.
Djokovic is rated as the 11-10 favorite for the men’s championship at Melbourne Park by U.K. bookmaker William Hill. Federer is next at 7-2, Murray 5-1 and Nadal 11-2.
Last year’s Australian Open final win over the 24-year-old Murray was the first of seven straight tournament victories for Djokovic in a 41-match winning streak, the best start on the men’s tour in 27 years.
He took the No. 1 spot from Nadal, 25, in July after earning his first Wimbledon title and finished with a 70-6 record. That included a 21-4 mark against top 10-ranked opponents, making Djokovic the first player to record 20 such wins since Lendl in 1985.
“With the new position that I have, I obviously have more expectations of what I do and more responsibilities,” Djokovic said in a round-table interview in November at the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals in London. “I’m ready for it. Everything that I do in my life is a challenge and I’m ready to accept it.”
Nadal, Federer, 30, and Britain’s Murray are trying to keep up.
Nadal added three grams to his racket head to “gain a little bit more power,” Jean-Christophe Verborg, international tour manager of French racket-maker Babolat, said in an e-mail.
The Spanish left-hander lost all six finals he played last year against Djokovic, including Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Before 2011, Djokovic had never managed to beat the 10-time major champion in a Grand Slam match.
“Considering that he’d owned Djokovic in big matches it was an incredible turnaround,” Gilbert said from Adelaide, where he was playing in the World Tennis Challenge exhibition event. “Nadal will go out there and do whatever he can. He’s a worker. If you’re not getting better, you’re falling behind.”
Nadal said he’d only had one practice week with his new racket before the start of this season. Although he’d decided to add more weight after the U.S. Open, he still helped Spain win the Davis Cup title in December with his old racket.
“I’m losing a little bit of control now, sometimes I don’t feel the forehand as good as before,” he told a news conference last week in Doha, Qatar, where he lost in the semifinals to eventual runner-up Gael Monfils of France. “But it’s something that I believe can help me in the future.”
Murray, who’s lost all three of his major finals, announced Lendl’s hiring on Dec. 31 and won the Brisbane International title eight days later. Known for a rigorous fitness regime and attention to detail as a player, Lendl, a Czech-born former No. 1-ranked player and a U.S. citizen since 1992, has never before worked as a top-level coach.
Djokovic’s landmark season was a “wakeup call” for Murray, said six-time Grand Slam singles champion Boris Becker.
“I’m sure that in the back of his mind, he’s said, ‘It could have been my year,’” Becker, who won titles at Wimbledon and the Australian and U.S Opens, said in an interview.
Federer, who won the most recent of his record 16 major singles championships at the 2010 Australian Open, practiced in Dubai over Christmas before playing in an exhibition tournament in Abu Dhabi, where he took three games off Djokovic in a semifinal loss. The Swiss right-hander blew two match points in a U.S. Open semifinal loss to Djokovic in September and then took time off to overcome some “doubts” in his mind about his game, he said in London.
Federer pulled out before last week’s Doha semifinals citing back spasms, only the second time in 996 career matches that he’s withdrawn during a tournament. He said this week that he’s making “good progress” in his preparations for the Australian Open, which he’s won four times.
“I get the feeling that people thinking that Roger doesn’t have another gear left only motivates him more,” said Gilbert, who also coached Andy Roddick to his only major victory at the 2003 U.S. Open.
Argentina’s Juan Martin Del Potro, the only player other than Djokovic, Federer and Nadal to win a Grand Slam title in the past 27 majors, said the Serb’s success last year marks him as the main quarry in the men’s game.
“Roger and Rafa will be going after Novak because they don’t want him to repeat the year he just had,” Del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, told reporters Jan. 8 in Sydney. “What he did is very difficult for him to do again.”
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