Enduring greatness: On Novak Djokovic

Djokovic seems ready to chase down records in men’s tennis held by Federer and Nadal

Among the Big Three in men’s tennis, Novak Djokovic has been the least appreciated by fans and followers. If Roger Federer’s wizardry has elevated the sport to unseen levels aesthetically, Rafael Nadal’s rugged artistry has stretched it to athletic extremes. Djokovic’s elastic genius has straddled the space in between and has at times been offset by his on-court demeanour and grinding style of play. But on Monday, when the 33-year-old embarked upon a record 311th week at the top of the ATP singles rankings, going past Federer, Djokovic served yet another reminder of his enduring greatness. The run is not as much about his longevity as it is about his utter domination of the decade gone by. Federer first reached the top in 2004 and Nadal in 2008. But since the time the Serb first scaled the peak — on July 4, 2011 — the celebrated duo has occupied pole position for just 132 weeks (Nadal 107, Federer 25). All but one of Djokovic’s 18 Grand Slam titles have come in the 10-year span starting with the 2011 Australian Open. Federer accumulated four during the same period, and Nadal 11, of which eight were at the French Open. Remarkably, Djokovic has overcome Federer or Nadal in 13 of the 18 Slams he has won and it will come as no surprise if Djokovic emerges with the most Majors, going past Federer’s and Nadal’s all-time record tally of 20.

Beyond statistics, a case can be made for Djokovic to be the most complete player of this era. His game, built on fleet-footed movement, a flat stroke, depth off both wings and a solid serve, is just about perfect for modern-day all-court tennis. Over the years, this combination has been chiselled to perfection, making him the pre-eminent force not just on the hard courts at Melbourne and New York, where he has a combined 12 crowns, but even on the hallowed grass at Wimbledon, where he has triumphed in five of the last nine editions, Federer’s grass-court majesty notwithstanding. Djokovic may not have replicated the same level of success against Nadal on clay — as the 2020 Roland Garros defeat showed — but he has been the Spaniard’s greatest challenger. “At a technical level, when Djokovic has been at the top of his game, I’ve been up against an invincible player,” Nadal once acknowledged. There have been blips; between his first two Majors (2008-2011) Djokovic’s game stagnated, and for two years after winning the 2016 French Open, he was in wilderness. But both times he returned to vintage form: ruthless and untouchable. Recently, Djokovic had seemed slightly tetchy and nervous against the ‘Next Gen’ players Dominic Thiem and Daniil Medvedev. But as the comprehensive victory over the latter in the 2021 Australian Open final showed, Djokovic’s mask of invincibility is far from cracking.

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