NOVAK Djokovic uses his head for something other than growing the world's thickest hair. He thinks. Because if he hadn't thought hard, he wouldn't have won 24 Slams.
If he wins this year in Australia, where he has already won 10 times, he will surpass the Australian Margaret Court's total of 24 Slams and will stand alone at the top of the tennis pyramid.
However, the infamous racist aunt from Perth didn't have such strong competition in the 1960s and 70s as Novak does. The people whose achievements come closer to his, I reckon, are Serena Williams (23 Slams), Steffi Graf (22), Rafael Nadal (22) and Roger Federer (20).
Each of these players used their heads for something other than advertising sweatbands.
The non-physical elements of sport have two major dimensions: what happens off the field/track and what happens on the field/track. The former is about motivation and the ability to overcome setbacks. On the field or track, it's about problem-solving and decision-making. In tennis, it is important where to position yourself and which shots to hit.
Denis and Félix
I recently realised once more what role the brain plays when I spent two days at the ASB Classic in Auckland, one of the warm-up tournaments for the Australian Open.
I saw how the two young Canadians who a year or three ago seemed ready to conquer the world got stuck because of stupidity, to put it bluntly.
Denis Shapovalov is the poster boy for this. The guy has special athletic abilities. He hits beautiful shots. His backhand is stunning. But he seems incapable of making sensible decisions on the court. That's why he loses so often against people who don't have anywhere near his ball skills, speed or strength.
And I'm afraid Félix Auger-Aliassime (who has already achieved much more than his compatriot) is not exempt from this problem. The guy has one of the best serves in the sport, he's big and fast and hits the ball with power and accuracy. But I saw him being ousted by Germany's Daniel Altmaier, a 25-year-old who at his best barely made the top 50, while FAA was already at number seven at the age of 23 and might go even further if he manages to use his head.
Not that I underestimate Altmaier. Anyone who is in the top 100 in a global sport has phenomenal talent. But most tennis fans rarely look beyond the top three or four players, or at most the top 10. So Altmaier is probably unknown to many readers, or at least less familiar than FAA.
The one thing Altmaier did better in Auckland than FAA was to think. For example, he bombarded his opponent with high aerial shots when he noticed the sun was creating a problem on one side of the court. And it worked over and over again. Why FAA didn't try the same tactic when Altmaier was looking into the sun, goodness knows.
Novak and Daniil
In a sport like tennis, you're not going to get to the top without having something between your ears. It doesn't necessarily have to be reflected in your everyday life.
For example, Djokovic holds a lot of questionable opinions and in 2017 he was completely seduced by the fake guru Pepe Imaz, who undermined his tennis. Their training methods included long hugs. But Djokovic mostly thinks clearly about tennis.
Daniil Medvedev's brain is one of his greatest weapons on the court, except when it becomes unhinged. He builds a point with deliberation and cunning, rather than relying on explosive power. He will hit a shot to lure his opponent to a certain spot, just to push him to another, then be able to hit a winner even with his less power. It's chess on a tennis court. Medvedev has reached the final in two of the last four Australian Opens and I wouldn't be surprised if he repeats that performance.
All eyes on Carlos and Jannik
But this year the experts' eyes are on two other players: the youngsters Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner. One of them can triumph. Both have already distinguished themselves — not only athletically but also by what goes on between their ears. Alcaraz is a quick learner and Sinner's concentration and determination are among his greatest assets.
And don't leave out Holger Rune, Alexander Zverev or Stefanos Tsitsipas, in descending order. Unfortunately, all three of them have problems in the head department.
Rune struggles emotionally and his arsenal of blows is so large that he often struggles to make the right tactical choices. Zverev has a certain short-sightedness, which means that after so many years he has never corrected his poor second serve. And Tsitsipas … well, he lets his father do his thinking.
♦ VWB ♦
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