It was Billie Jean King who said, “Pressure is a privilege.”
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World No. 1 Novak Djokovic didn’t quite put it that way when he talked to the media Friday at the BNP Paribas Open here, but the sentiments were the same.
“As a top player, you just have to deal with the pressure,” he said. “You have to understand it, you know, cherish it and accept it as a challenge. Just try to take the best out of it and give your best on every match you play.”
After his sensational season in 2011, when the super-fit Serb won three of the four Grand Slams before physical wear and tear blunted the edges of his game in September, Djokovic has become a worldwide celebrity and the recipient of numerous awards. He is trying not to get carried away by it all.
How did it feel to be on top of the world? “Look, I still have the same daily routine,” the Serb replied in his fluent English. “The same approach to my career, to the life that I’m having. I don’t consider myself, you know, being on top of the world, being untouchable or unbeatable. That’s out of the question. I always try to have a positive mindset in preparing for every event, every season. I think that helps me stay committed and focused on what I need to do. I am more than happy to receive the highest honor of Serbia and then the Laureus (regarded as sport’s Oscars) as well. It is very flattering.”
Djokovic referred twice to his semifinal loss at the hands of Roger Federer at the French Open in June, which was his first defeat of 2011. He said it was his last big disappointment but also one of the most exciting matches he ever has played in.
“Even though I lost, I still think it was pretty special because we went the distance. We went right up to 9:15 p.m. in the evening with no lights and with a full stadium. So it had a special feel about it. Roland Garros is my favorite Grand Slam. I love playing there.”
But the highlight of his amazing year. “Oh, the biggest success was Wimbledon,” he said with a smile. “Winning that title, winning the tournament that I always dreamed of winning.”
On court, there was an excellent win for Jamie Hampton, the 22-year-old from Alabama who snuck into the world’s top 100 for the first time last week at No. 99. She will be going higher after beating former world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic 6-4, 6-3 on Stadium Court.
Hampton joked that she was so nervous before the match that she felt like throwing up, but there were few signs of nerves once the match got under way. Standing in and taking the game to the Serbian counterpuncher, Hampton was accurate enough to control most of the rallies and broke for a 5-1 lead in the second set with a couple of aggressive backhands that clipped the sideline.
Then those nerves came back, and a poor service game cost Hampton her first opportunity to serve out for victory. But at 5-3, she made no mistake and thoroughly deserved this confidence-boosting victory.
“For me to dictate, I need to be inside the court,” Hampton said afterward. “That was one of the things that helped today; keeping my positioning up. Worked out well today.”
Hampton, who mostly trains out of Atlanta, credits a couple of weeks she and her longtime coach Jason Parker spent at the USTA headquarters in Boca Raton, Fla., last year as having helped her development.
“The coaches down there helped me and my coach put together a game plan; just some objectives that I need to keep in mind no matter who I am playing. It gave me a clear path of what I want to do with my game and what it was going to be like if I wanted to play at the top level.”
On this evidence, Hampton, who was born in Germany while her father served in the armed forces, is on the right path.
Women’s No. 1 Victoria Azarenka won her 18th straight match when she defeated 37th-ranked German Mona Barthel, but it took her one minute short of three hours and will not be a performance she will reflect on fondly. Barthel, a hugely talented newcomer who has real potential, twice served for the match and twice came within two points of making it before Azarenka came through to win 6-4, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (6).
The Belarussian led 4-2 in the decisive tiebreaker before double faulting and allowing Barthel to level at 4-4. But experience told in the end on this occasion. It might be different in the future.