NEW YORK — Novak Djokovic has defined defense in an era of defensive marvels.
With rubberband-like limbs, furious footwork and uncanny anticipation, when Djokovic puts a racket on the ball — and he almost always does — it's likely headed back over the net, often with interest.
But to win the U.S. Open, which begins Monday and where 2011 champion Djokovic is the top seed, the 27-year-old Serb must rely on risk.
It is offense — owning the middle of the court, finishing off points early and primarily serving — that has carried him back to the top of tennis a year after losing in four sets to Rafael Nadal in the New York final.
He knows it, too.
"Maybe I think about my defense too much," Djokovic told USA TODAY Sports in a sit-down chat during his stuttering lead-up to the year's final major. "I have to get more in the offensive mode."
If he succeeds in Queens, the seven-time Grand Slam champion almost certainly will join Ivan Lendl, Roger Federer and Nadal as the only Open-era players to finish the season No. 1 a year after falling from that spot.
"There is one nice saying that I always like to use: The greater the challenge, the more glory in overcoming it," Djokovic says.
Those challenges include the most distracting period of his career.
Djokovic, the face of once war-torn Serbia, has experienced a perfect convergence of career and personal arcs the last few weeks.
In July he snapped a five-match losing streak in Grand Slam finals by holding off Roger Federer to win his second Wimbledon championship. "For me, the best quality tennis-wise in a Grand Slam final I was part of," Djokovic says. The win returned him to No. 1.
Four days later, he tied the knot with his longtime girlfriend, Jelena Ristic, at a seaside resort in Montenegro and then honeymooned in Greece.
Next up: Fatherhood. The couple is expecting their first child in late October.
"I'm very fulfilled in different areas of my life," he says.
But that has not made for a smooth transition back to top-level tennis. Djokovic suffered early losses at U.S. Open tune-ups in Toronto and Mason, Ohio, leaving him 2-2 since Wimbledon.
"It's not easy, because you win Wimbledon, become No. 1 again, you get married, and next thing you know you have to find the motivation," he says.
"Just many, many, many things are not clicking these two weeks on hardcourts," Djokovic added after losing a fourth-round match to Tommy Robredo of Spain at the Western & Southern Open. "It's unfortunate, but it's more than obvious I'm not playing even close to what I'm supposed to play."
Whatever his recent struggles, Djokovic is never more locked in than when playing on cement. Since 2010, he has an ATP Tour-best 88% winning percentage on hardcourts (226-29), including a tour-leading 22 titles.
But he's even better in the best-of-five set format at majors, where his fitness and mental toughness pay bigger dividends. His 90% winning clip (64-7) the last four years is tops.
"You can't hit through him, so if you're a little bit tired you still need to build points," says 2012 U.S. Open champion Andy Murray. "That's not always easy."
No one has performed more consistently at the U.S. Open in recent seasons than Djokovic, a semifinalist or better the past seven years, including five finals. His only title came during his magical 2011 season when he won three of four majors.
Djokovic called the loss to Nadal in last year's final a mental turning point.
Indeed, he rebounded by going 24-0 the rest of the year to finish a close second behind Nadal. He is a tour-best 63-6 over the last 12 months.
But something was missing, and it showed up this year in tight losses to Stan Wawrinka at the Australian Open quarterfinals and to Nadal in the French Open final.
"I understood that there is something obviously that I need to change and I need to improve, and that something was mostly mental in my approach to the Grand Slam finals," Djokovic says. "Whenever I would get to the court I would maybe get a little bit too nervous and wasn't able to bring my A game."
At the start of 2014, Djokovic added Boris Becker to an entourage that included longtime coach Marian Vajda to help him handle pressure situations. He said the collaboration with the offensive-minded Becker paid off in the Wimbledon, when he had a heart-to-heart talk during a bathroom break after dropping the fourth set to Federer.
"I literally said to myself, 'OK, this is it. There's no turning back. You have to win this title.' And I was very emotional in the end because I was aware of the mental struggle and the mental push that I needed to win it."
Becker agrees that Djokovic must call upon the same take-no-prisoners mentality to prevail at Flushing Meadows. "He needs to have a very strong mindset, a cool head, and then good luck," says six-time Grand Slam champion Becker, who captured his only U.S. Open title in 1989.
"He's now the man to beat," Becker adds. "He's the No. 1. He's the Wimbledon champion. Everybody wants his scalp."
Serving is key
Most agree Djokovic is the most complete player in the men's game with few weaknesses. But his success is increasingly linked to the moments when he is not darting across the court — on serve. Murray and John Isner called his delivery "underrated."
And no wonder: Known for his smothering defense, Djokovic in 2014 has been putting up some of the best serving statistics of his career. He is uncorking a career-high 6.6 aces per match, while also equaling his top marks in first-serve percentage (67%) and service games won (88%).
He's going for more but not losing accuracy.
He ranks third on tour in second-serve points won (57%), suggesting he not only serving is bigger but also protecting it more effectively.
"He serves extremely well and on top of that he backs it up with the best stuff in the world," says Isner, the USA's highest-ranked player. "His offense is every bit as good as his defense."
Djokovic smiles at the notion that he now has a "secret weapon. "I have worked on my serve, and I know that there have been times in my career when the serve wasn't as helpful, but in the last two years or so it's been a real advantage and a shot I can rely on."
And that's not all. Djokovic is also consciously nudging himself to end points quicker from the baseline.
"I'm trying to shorten the points and have a one, two, three shot solution," he says.
Meantime, Djokovic's enduring weapons remain intact: The ability to reach a neutral position while receiving with low, hard, deep returns; redirecting baseline rallies from either wing; rarely missing; and what Canada's Milos Raonic calls "the unknown" — a chameleon-like proficiency to alter strategies on the go.
"There is no direct answer to what you might try to hone in on with his game," says No. 6 Raonic. "You have to change with him more than anyone throughout a match. He can close it up and does things you might not have seen watching him the day before."
At least Djokovic will not have to worry about No. 2 Nadal, who has beaten the Serb in two of three U.S. Open finals. He pulled out with a right wrist injury.
A bigger challenge could from Federer, a five-time U.S. Open winner who will be seeded second; Britain's Murray, who upended Djokovic in the 2012 final; Wawrinka; or one of the young guns such as Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov.
Lest anyone forget, Djokovic often responds best with his back against the wall. After a heady summer, his confidence is again "pretty high," he says, and he likes his chances.
He knows this is not the time to hold back. Risk will mean reward.
"There is a lot at stake," Djokovic says.
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