Most fans tend to get swayed by the dominance of athletes at their peak. The question of who can take down the mighty-of-now dissipates when examined through the lens of context. But human nature and fan enthusiasm revel in what’s in the face; history and long-term discernment is more in the realm of analysts.
The question of who is going to challenge Novak Djokovic is rampant now that the Serb has won three slams in a row while sitting comfortably at the number one spot since November. At 31, he is in peak physical shape. Given his work ethic -- he turned down an invite from Vladimir Putin for the Sochi Winter Olympics as it clashed with a tour event at Dubai — stopping the man from his goal of becoming the greatest tennis player of all time (as his father Srdjan has been quoted saying) isn’t going to be easy.
“Novak’s greatest competition is himself. At this level when you are playing sublime tennis, it’s most important that the team that supports you and the systems that you have put in place continue to run smoothly. The way he is hitting the ball, unless injury slows him down, Novak is certainly on the road to even greater heights,” says India’s most successful tennis player Leander Paes.
Data culled from the men’s matches at the Australian Open reveals that 70% of the points were finished within four shots. So, for a large majority of the matches, a player hit the ball just twice.
Nine-plus shots only made up 10 per cent of men’s matches. Djokovic won 112 points more than he lost in rallies that had four or less shots. This killer edge and ability to finish things off quickly comes from years of experience at the top level. No matter how talented the next crop of youngsters are, it’ll take a while for them to hone their weapons to such precision.
That apart, it would be prudent to realise that tennis will soon shift from the precise bound of the hard courts to the more whimsical clay. That surface is the domain of another great of modern tennis, Rafael Nadal. As his run to the final of the Australian Open proved, Nadal is back and it would be foolhardy to discount him anytime soon.
The vicious spin and short angles that Nadal’s wiper-swing forehand allows, make him the undisputed clay king. Nadal has 33 ATP masters 1000 titles. Twenty-four of these are on clay. Djokovic has 32, eight on clay. So, as is the wont of sport, the master of today may well look like the novice of yesterday the moment the tour gets dusty. But now, the caveat: Djokovic does stay the only player to have beaten Nadal in four clay court finals. He won the French Open, too, in 2016 and beat Nadal in the 2015 quarters.
Established stars aside, the 25-year-old Dominic Thiem has beaten Djokovic the last two times they played on clay. A 20-year-old from Greece scalped the GOAT (greatest of all time) Roger Federer at the Australian Open and Stefanos Tsitsipas also had Djokovic’s number at the Canada 1000 last year. Alexander Zverev downed him at the season-ending finals at London last November.
Giving perspective to Djokovic’s losses to the younger brigade, former India world number 62 Somdev Devvarman says: “In a tour event anyone can be having a hot run, but the key is to maintain that intensity over two weeks of a slam.” Devvarman goes on to echo Paes, “If Djokovic keeps playing the way he is, his biggest opponent is himself. Only he can let himself down.”
The Commonwealth Games singles gold medallist is also backing the Serb against the feisty Spaniard and the cool Swiss. “Against Rafa, he has a gameplan which works brilliantly – as exemplified in the Australian Open final. And even against Roger, he does go in the favourite now, doesn’t he?”
In the past, Djokovic’s game had unravelled after domestic discord, with John McEnroe reportedly asserting that he had “off-court issues with family”. A section of the press notoriously labelled him the Tiger Woods of tennis. All that, as well as the experiments with celebrity coaches like Andre Agassi and Boris Becker, is well in the past and now Djokovic devotedly puts out family pictures on social media.
With 15 Grand Slams to his credit, Djokovic is looking to hunt down Federer’s record of 20. He wants be the GOAT. The game’s there, as long as the mind too stays on track, he looks unbeatable as of now. But then, didn't they say the same about Federer once?
The author is a senior sports writer and the former national sports editor of Hindustan Times