A Sony Open without Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal as top seeds is a little like a day in Key Biscayne without sunshine.
But Novak Djokovic is doing everything in his power to make tennis fans forget about the absence of the dynamic duo. After all, he is the show these days — a breathtaking show of fitness, flexibility, power, endurance, accuracy and charisma. He is No. 1 and they are the aging, ailing hunters.
Djokovic cruised through a 6-2, 6-4 dismissal of India’s Somdev Devvarman in 68 minutes Sunday before heading downtown to watch the Miami Heat tame the Bobcats. Like LeBron James, Djokovic seems invincible this season, although his 22-match win streak was interrupted last week in Indian Wells by Juan Martin Del Potro.
Hard to imagine that no so long ago Djokovic was defined by his fragility. He retired in four Grand Slam matches. He was constantly bending over to catch his breath, clutching a tender muscle, calling for a trainer — irritating his opponents to no end.
“Cramp, bird flu, anthrax, SARS, common cough and cold,” was Andy Roddick’s memorable comment in 2008. Roddick forgot asthma, another supposed Djokovic malady.
His spot-on impersonations of his fellow pros were better than his play against them. He was the silly Serbian hypochondriac. So much potential, so little fortitude.
But in the past two years, one of the most fascinating things to follow in sports has been the transformation of Djokovic. He has won five of the past nine Grand Slams — including his third consecutive Australian Open in January — and was runner-up or semifinalist in the other four. He’s won in broiling Melbourne, dry Indian Wells, humid Miami, chilly Paris, damp London, chaotic New York.
He’s done it by toughening body and mind. By attending to every edge he can find. By recognizing his weaknesses and attacking them. By learning from those he wanted to emulate.
Djokovic, 25, got some of Federer’s unshakeable self-belief and Nadal’s blue-collar relentlessness and now possesses a combination of their traits. He had dreamed of being No. 1 since he was a kid, but lacked Federer’s confidence and Nadal’s devotion to routine.
The turning point from hovering at No. 3 to becoming best in the world was his decision to amend his mind-set, he said Sunday.
“Bottom line, this is a mental game,” he said. “Everybody can work very hard on their physical condition and achieve a certain level of the game. But in the big matches at the big tournaments in the close moments the player who is more calm and mentally composed and who has more experience usually wins the match.
“It was process of learning, maturing. I was patient.”
He sharpened his will, yet retained his wit. He is an athlete you like to watch in matches and you like to interact with in person.
How did Djokovic do it? First, he overhauled his eating habits. No more pizza and pasta from the family restaurant. No more cookies and cake. He switched to a gluten-free diet and lost 10 pounds but says he is faster, stronger, fresher. His drinks are vitamin-packed. He is Gumby-like on the court, certainly the lithest, springiest player on tour.
“I don’t know the number, but it’s very low, no?” Djokovic said of his body fat, yanking up his shirt and squeezing the taut skin on his stomach. Smiling, of course. The guy is always smiling.
Asked about his fitness regimen, he was coy.
“There are things I like to keep for myself,” he said. “Maybe you’ll see it in a book someday.”
But we do know his secret formula includes yoga, stretching with an elastic band and spending recovery time in a $75,000 “fitness pod” that simulates high-altitude conditions, compresses muscles and boosts circulation.
“Every single detail is important,” Djokovic said, recognizing that an 11-month season against the likes of Andy Murray, Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer, Federer, Nadal and the onslaught of up-and-comers leaves no room for improvising.
He, like his peers, relies on a team: coach, trainer, physical therapist, massage therapist, nutritionist, psychologist.
“I did have my doubts but the great team of people around me who are experts in their departments and always believed in my abilities convinced me that I could do it,” Djokovic said.
Former pro Darren Cahill said the systematic, ultra-professionalized team approach — made possible by huge increases in prize money — is the single greatest reason that men’s tennis changed from a skill game to a physically demanding game in which the top players, like the top pound-for-pound boxers, can do everything well on every surface.
“You’ve got to be able to crush the ball from both sides of your body, hit 135-mph serves, move like a sprinter, run a marathon,” Cahill said.
Men’s tennis keeps morphing and it bears little resemblance to the sport Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe played during their prime in another magical era. We watched Federer chip away at Pete Sampras’ record accomplishments. Then Nadal came after Federer — with reverence but determination. Djokovic wasn’t ready to bust into this Golden Era until 2011.
And now we have three once-in-a-generation players intersecting at the same time, with Murray on a collision course.
Djokovic is the most approachable of the four. He is outgoing, genuine, a UNICEF ambassador in Serbia, a fan of skiing and soccer. Asked who he would choose to play him in a movie, he said Robert De Niro. Female players chose glamorous Marilyn Monroe, Scarlett Johansson, Gwyneth Paltrow. He picked the actor who is absorbed by his character. This from Djokovic, the mimic who can address fans in multiple languages and do the Petko Dance in the locker room (a victory jig performed by Germany’s Andrea Petkovic).
Fail to take him seriously, though, and he will rip you apart — followed by a cordial handshake. This is a guy who has sworn off pizza and is still smiling.
“I want to stay in this place as long as I can,” he said. “But again, I want to enjoy it.”