By JAMES HENRY
CINCINNATI – He’s already won nine titles this year, more than double any other tennis player in the world, and Novak Djokovic wants even more.
Also, just because the U.S. Open is quickly approaching, don’t think he is going to limit his efforts at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. He’s in it to win it.
“Performing the best tennis is the priority in New York. But still I will not, you know, play matches on this tournament just to get some practice,” he vowed. “I don’t do that. I go to every match to win.”
A finalist at the Masters 1000 in 2008 and 2009 and at the Major in 2007 and 2010, Djokovic said he’s already proven he can go deep in Cincinnati and, soon after, in New York.
“In the past years, I did play couple of finals here and then I got to the late stages of the U.S. Open, so it’s not something that I think can affect my performance on the U.S. Open physically,” he said.
Djokovic said there is ample time between the two tournaments for him to prepare for the ballyhooed fourth and final Major of the year.
“There is still a week, which is more than enough for me to rest and get ready,” he said.
In his opening round match in Cincinnati Wednesday night, the World No. 1 defeated American wild card Ryan Harrison 6-2, 6-3. The victory lifted the Serbian’s record this season to 30-0 on hard courts and 28-0 at the Masters 1000 level, as well as 54-1 overall.
So far this year, he has won titles at the Australian Open, the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, the BNP Paribas Open, the Sony Ericsson Open, the Serbia Open 2011, the Mutua Madrid Open, the Internazionali BNL d'Italia, Wimbledon and, just last week, the Rogers Cup.
Djokovic surpassed Rafael Nadal as the top-ranked men's tennis player at the beginning of July. He said he is enjoying the position – and everything that goes along with it.
“I know that there is a certain increase in the responsibility of me carrying myself on and off the court. I’m trying to do it as best as I can,” he said. “It’s all fresh, it’s all new, but it’s a challenge. I’m ready to accept that.”
Fellow Serbian Jelena Janković, who was ranked at the top among tennis women in 2008, said she has been impressed by Djokovic’s ability to keep his form.
“A lot of players can play well certain parts of the season, but they cannot play so consistently well the whole year,” she noted. “He only lost one match since January, so that shows how impressive his game and mentality has been.”
“The most important thing, I think, is that he’s mentally really, really strong, and I think he breaks down a lot of other players with, you know, his toughness.”
She added other tennis pros are watching Djokovic to learn how to play his game, but no one has been able to replicate it.
“It’s easier to say and speak, but it’s tougher to do it, you know, in practice,” she said. “It’s just theory.”
Janković, who won the Cincinnati title in 2009, beat qualifier Jie Zheng 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 in the second round Wednesday afternoon. She said she’s mixing up her routines and doing different exercises to keep her motivated as she works to improve her game.
“If you love pizza, but if you eat it every day, you’re eventually going to get sick of it,” she opined.
“I think you have to kind of mix it up and find some balance between your sport and some other things that you like to do and then stay happy.”
“I play better when I’m happy off the court, as well,” she added. “When I go on the court, I go with a smile on my face and I’m happy to be hitting balls and working on my tennis game.”
Asked to compare her present self to when she was No. 1, Janković said she moved better then, but is serving better now. Currently ranked 14th, she conceded she does not like practicing and would rather just compete and, at times, has been lazy.
But the 2008 U.S. Open finalist now is reinvigorated. Like her countryman, she wants more.
“I still have a lot of things to prove – not just to other people, but to myself,” she said. “That’s why I play this game. I still enjoy it.”
“I really am working hard again,” she said. “And I’m willing to do whatever it takes to come back to the top again.”
In the third round Thursday, Djokovic will play qualifier Radek Štěpánek, while Janković will face 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone. The matches are scheduled not before 2:30 p.m. on Center Court and 7 p.m. in the Grandstand, respectively.
James Henry is a contributing writer for OnTheGoTennis and is currently in Cincinnati covering the tournament. To follow him on Twitter click here.