“I think I’m healthy now,” Novak Djokovic said.
The nine-time major-tournament champion was responding good-naturedly to a question about how he has kicked the habit of bouncing a tennis ball as many as 30 times before serving and how some athletes in his sport have a history of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Djokovic has cut his pre-serve procedure-tic? eccentricity? phobia? to between six and eight bounces, fairly normal among his peers. In fact, these days it is Rafael Nadal, who has won 14 Grand Slam events in his imposing career, who has the quirkiest lead-up to a serve.
So obvious are Nadal’s idiosyncrasies — in quick succession, he pulls at the back of his shorts and touches both shoulders, one ear, his nose and his other ear and nose again — that the French sports daily L’Equipe recently assigned a writer to count how many times Nadal tugged at the seat of his pants during a French Open match. The total was in triple figures.
Players customarily take three to four balls from ballpersons before they serve before quickly discarding the extras, with no apparent reason beyond mind-clearing routine. Maria Sharapova’s distinctive, and sometimes maddeningly slow, preparation is to turn her back on the court and conduct some sort of wordless committee meeting with herself. Then she does a little hopping dance before returning to the service line.
Veteran Frenchman Richard Gasquet always demands the ball with which he has won the previous point.
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American John Isner typically — though not always — pockets one ball, then bounces the other between his legs, back to front. Superstition?
“It’s not on accident,” Isner said. “I did play a lot of basketball growing up until I was 15, so it must have come from that. But it’s certainly something I don’t think about.”
According to sports psychologist John Murray, who has worked with coaches and athletes in all sports, not thinking about such patterns is the whole idea.
“It doesn’t matter too much what you’re doing, but you want it to be automatic,” Murray said. “Routine helps people not to react to the environment. It keeps everything the same, whether it’s a really big point or not.
“I teach it all the time to players. It’s like a metronome in piano; it sets a rhythm. It’s the consistency. It gets players ready for the point. We all have ritualistic behaviors, and there might be anxiety, pressure, so doing something you’re familiar with calms you down.”
In Djokovic’s case, the dozens and dozens of times he would dribble a ball before serving resembled what former champ Jimmy Connors revealed in his book, “The Outsider,” had become a fixation. Connors couldn’t make himself stop bouncing the ball.
Djokovic’s increasingly tedious pattern not only telegraphed his building anxiety but also began to get on other people’s nerves.
“I got a few warnings, time violations with ball bouncing,” Djokovic said of the rule, which requires a serve within 25 seconds of the last point on the men’s tour. “I was aware of the fact that it was annoying also the opponents. I wasn’t doing it on purpose.”
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Djokovic once had an opponent, awaiting serve, turn his back, which only caused Djokovic to restart his routine, leading to yet more unproductive thumping of ball on court.
“Everybody has some kind of habits, some that your body automatically does each day subconsciously that you’re not aware of,” Djokovic said. “I was aware that it was [going on] too long, but just in those moments, you can’t make a change.
“The tricky thing was that in the practice situation, I wasn’t doing it. In matches I was. The only place I could work on it was in matches. But then the match is so important that you don’t want to lose, right? So you go back to your comfort zone.”
At least until he cured the affliction. Or minimized it. Not only is he the world’s No. 1 player, but he has his health.