Novak Djokovic was still a couple hours away from playing at the ATP Cup in Brisbane, but already the Serbian was showing his emotions for his country.
Midway through the first set of Serbian Dusan Lajovic’s match against Lloyd Harris of South Africa, Lajovic had a chance for a break point but missed a forehand approach. Djokovic slapped his leg and leaned back in Serbia’s Team Zone.
By now, the 32-year-old knows well how to manage his emotions and balance his competing roles at the inaugural 24-team event, which is playing played in Brisbane, Perth and Sydney and moves exclusively to Sydney on Thursday for the Final Eight.
Djokovic and other No. 1 singles players play the second match of their ATP Cup tie, meaning their pre-match routine can – and often does – include supporting their teammate, the country’s No. 2 singles player, who plays before them.
But it takes some thinking, as Djokovic acknowledged, to make sure you’re supporting your teammates while sticking to your own pre-match routine and not getting too emotionally involved as a supporter.
“It’s kind of a balance between the two, really. Because it’s a team competition, you’re always kind of finding that additional energy and strength and motivation that is probably always different in individual tournaments, because it’s all about you,” Djokovic said. “And here it’s, even though there’s that factor of individual and elements of an individual tournament, it’s still a team competition.”
The World No. 2 stayed through 12 games of Lajovic’s match against Harris before heading to the locker room to warm up. His opponent that night, Kevin Anderson, followed the same routine, offering a fist pump and encouraging words to Harris before exiting the court in Pat Rafter Arena.
The South African has years of team tennis experience, having played collegiate tennis at the University of Illinois in the U.S. and on Team World at the 2018 Laver Cup in Chicago.
“I just find that balance pretty comfortably… that balance of getting out there and being excited, but obviously realising that you still have to play afterwards,” Anderson said.
“At the end of the day, yelling at the top of my lungs is not going to maybe help Lloyd too much. It’s just being there, being supportive. I think just more time and days before the match is probably more valuable than, arguably more valuable, than just being out there.”
Although both Djokovic and Anderson watched much of the first singles match, others have different strategies that have worked for them throughout the years. World No. 1 Rafael Nadal, for instance, watched only three games of Roberto Bautista Agut’s singles match on Saturday before leaving to prepare for his debut at the ATP Cup in Perth.
“I am old in these situations. A lot of experience… We know how to manage the situation,” Nadal said. “If things are not going well, it’s not because we lose energy in moments we should not.”
Croatia’s top singles players want to be so locked in they watch even fewer than three games with their teammates in the Croatia Team Zone by the baseline.
Borna Coric watched none of Marin Cilic’s match, and vice versa, and why change something that works: Croatia is 2-0 in Sydney.
“If I’m playing first, he’s not there, and I know it and I’m OK with it. And also he knows that I’m not going to be on his match, obviously,” said Coric, who overcame Cilic as the country’s No. 1 singles player last year.
Cilic, however, came after his match to support Coric and watch the 23-year-old face Austria’s No. 1 Dominic Thiem. Coric pulled off the upset against the World No. 4 for his first Top 10 win in more than a year (0-3 in 2019).
“It was really nice for him that he came to my match afterwards, because his support means a lot to me,” Coric said of Cilic. “He’s older, and still, even though if he’s the No. 2 at the moment, I feel like he’s our leader. So it did mean a lot that also he came. Obviously he was playing a very long match, but that just shows his character.”
Djokovic and other No. 1 singles players also make it a point to support their countrymen who are playing doubles and finishing up the tie, but Djokovic’s movements during the first singles match aren’t always as methodical as they may seem.
For instance, if Lajovic would have gone to a third-set tie-break with Harris, Djokovic would have trotted back on court and stood alongside his teammates to root for his countryman.
“You care, you’re passionate, you want to be out there for your teammate,” he said.