This is how Novak Djokovic managed to recover from two collapses at the 2008 and 2010 French Open.
LONDON, England – The day before the start of the Australian Open in 2009, Novak Djokovic was asked about whether he was scared of what might happen when his body finally gave out. “It would be bad if I was scared,” he said. “But maybe scared that this might happen. But a healthy fear would be, ‘I’m here and I will give my best.’”
Six years later, and Djokovic is about to come back to the scene of his signature win, the French Open in 2012, to defend his title against Dominic Thiem. While the French Open win came as a huge surprise for a former Wimbledon champion and former world No. 1, his two collapses at Roland Garros, in 2008 and 2010, were no less shocking.
At the 2008 French Open, he had nothing left at the end of the final against Fernando Gonzalez after hitting the final shot to end the match into the net. The next year, in another stunning collapse, Djokovic went down in the second round to Ivo Karlovic.
His propensity to come back from an ugly loss is part of what makes him perhaps the greatest player of all time, but it also shows that he had discovered the secret to his mental approach to major championships.
Djokovic was playing at 25 years old, but he still had to win the Wimbledon title to be considered one of the greatest. It looked like he might not even get that chance, when he fell in the semifinals to Roger Federer.
In fact, Djokovic won the U.S. Open a month later to become the first player in history to win the last two Grand Slams of the year.
Although he hasn’t won a major championship since, Djokovic has never lost his streaky nature and mentality. When he played some of his best tennis after the 2008 French Open, when he won two of the following three majors, he won three of the next four Grand Slam titles, including the 2012 French Open.
What is notable about Djokovic’s performances after Roland Garros is that he didn’t go all-out to win all four of those Grand Slams in one year like he did after he won the Australian Open in 2010. Instead, he enjoyed his work, and started enjoying it. He was less likely to be given the best-of-five-set match that he was accustomed to in Grand Slams, but that was okay with him, and in turn, that helped make him mentally stronger.
There were other factors that are both good and bad for Djokovic. After becoming mentally tougher, he didn’t lose himself to physical toll, as he suffered only three defeats on the way to winning the French Open in 2012. The first of those defeats came in the semifinals to Rafael Nadal, but he also had to deal with his first ranking drop to the world No. 4 since September 2009.
With that experience, he has found the best balance between taking care of his body and competing at his peak.
At the U.S. Open, where he won his 23rd career major title in September, Djokovic looked really good physically and again found his best form after letting his mind drift as he was on his way to a career-worst 56th ranking in June.
Since his third-round loss to John Isner in the 2016 Australian Open, Djokovic is 32-4 in Grand Slams, with his only loss in a Grand Slam in that span coming in the 2017 Wimbledon final to Rafael Nadal.
The buildup to the Australian Open was mixed, as Djokovic fought through match points against Viktor Troicki to win his opening match in Melbourne. In the quarterfinals, Djokovic fell in four sets to Marin Cilic.
After a hard win over Richard Gasquet in the semifinals, Djokovic was upset by Thiem in five sets in the final.
The biggest question regarding Djokovic’s new regimen after beating Nadal in the Wimbledon final is whether the addition of the Challenger circuit will enable Djokovic to continue playing as well as he did at the U.S. Open and the year before.
Still, regardless of how well he does at the Australian Open, Djokovic is expected to return to the top of the rankings and be one of the favorites to win the French Open next year. He has found the right combination of mental toughness and physical exertion, and that will take him a long way in the sport.