Does Nole have the eye of the tiger?

Novak Djokovic at the French Open, where he must make his stand against Rafael Nadal. Photograph by Yann Caradec.

Novak Djokovic at the French Open, where he must make his stand against Rafael Nadal. Photograph by Yann Caradec.

So after losing to Stanislas Wawrinka in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, Novak Djokovic elected not to play the first round of the Davis Cup against Wawrinka and Roger Federer, who had chosen to descend from Mount Olympus for the occasion, thereby virtually ensuring that his beloved Serbia would lose to Switzerland. 

Nole claimed exhaustion and instead went skiing. (His parents were skiers under the old Communist system in the former Yugoslavia.) And while the Serbian Davis Cup team coach Bogdan Obradovic defended that decision, saying Nole has always been there for his country, others wondered why.

“I’m sure he’s exhausted after playing five matches,” one poster wrote sarcastically. (I love how the Internet has given us ignorant snark the way swamps once bred yellow fever.)

Come again? It wasn’t five matches. It was more like 20-odd matches in a row, from tournament wins in Paris to Beijing to Shanghai to the year-ender in London to a fund-raising farewell tour for other players in South America with Rafael Nadal (who isn’t playing Davis Cup either but is resting his sore back at home in Majorca) to Dubai and then Melbourne. That’s four continents in four months. I’m exhausted just writing it.

But you see how it looks: It looks like Nole’s afraid of a Swiss smackdown, unwilling to play for his country in a losing cause. (Serbia is without its other best players for a variety of reasons.) If it were me, I would’ve played, but then I’m an insecure workaholic.

I’m also not the first writer to wonder if Nole’s physical gifts are greater than his psychological ones. Does he lack the “Eye of the Tiger,” to quote one of the songs he likes to sing in karaoke, particularly in the Slams? 

No, I don’t think he lacks guts. But I do think he is extremely intelligent, and smart people are often their own worst enemies, getting in the way of something that is physical and intuitive by overthinking. (Leaving aside his steroid issues, I think this is true of Alex Rodriguez.)

Nole has said his goals are regaining the No. 1 ranking and winning the French Open. And that means taking it to Rafa where he lives. 

It’s the eye of the tiger

It’s the dream of a fight

Rising up to the challenge of a rival….

It may also mean concentrating on fewer tournaments. John McEnroe – my all-time favorite player and a man as independent-minded as Nole and Andre Agassi, another fave – always played Davis Cup, singles and doubles. But Mac also didn’t like to practice and so used Davis Cup to stay in shape. Nole is a disciplinarian on the court.

There is such a thing as too much playing and not enough play, you know what I mean? You don’t want to lose your joy. Each man must find the balance for himself. I don’t think it’s about how much you play. I think it’s about having the eye of the tiger when you need it.