Novak Djokovic the number one player in men’s tennis but the number many associate with the Serbian star is three.
Starting in late 2007, when he had just entered his twenties, Djokovic became the world’s number three ranked player behind tennis’ then dominant duo – Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Despite convincingly beating Federer in a semi-final en route to winning his first gram slam at the 2008 Australian Open, Djokovic was unable to crack the top two until 2010. During one frustrating stretch, he spent a record 91 consecutive weeks stagnant at number three. Sure, it was a sign of remarkable consistency but the idleness was proving the ultimate tease for Djokovic.
During that period, at the height of the Federer/Nadal rivalry, it appeared Djokovic was destined to be an annoying third wheel to tennis’ two titans. Sure, Djokovic was likely to pinch the odd grand slam but it seemed unlikely he would legitimately challenge the supremacy of Federer and Nadal. Djokovic may have been the third best player in the world but the perception of the public and pundits was that he was a notable notch below his rivals.
But for the past four years, Djokovic has proved a worthy contender for tennis’ throne. He’s propelled past Federer and Nadal to be the best player in men’s tennis since the start of 2011. In that time, he has won six Grand Slams on three surfaces, compared to Nadal’s five (four being at his stomping ground at Roland Garros) and a measly one for Federer.
In 2011, Djokovic submitted a season regarded as perhaps the most dominant ever, winning 70 out of 76 matches on tour (including winning 41 straight), winning three Grand Slams and enjoying a 10-1 record against Federer and Nadal.
While unable to match his magical exploits of 2011, Djokovic has been consistently brilliant since and finished 2014 as the top ranked player. With age starting to wear out Federer and Nadal’s body battered by his punishing game, Djokovic has the opportunity to cement himself as the dominant force of men’s tennis.
The Australian Open could well be an indication of what will unfold this year. Federer was shockingly knocked out early, while a labouring Nadal was eviscerated in the quarter-finals by Tomas Berdych. Meanwhile, Djokovic dismantled Milos Raonic and is now the favourite to claim his fifth Australian Open, though he will have to go through Stanislas Wawrinka and Andy Murray to claim the title.
Still, despite his stunning success over the past four years, it doesn’t feel that Djkovoic is revered and exalted like Federer and Nadal. It’s as if the overriding sentiment is that he’s great but not GREAT. Perhaps some of this stems from his goofy sense of humour and clownish antics, notably his imitations of his peers including Federer and Serena Williams. Unsurprisingly, his nickname became ‘The Djoker’.
Early in his career, Djokovic also came across as temperamental and slightly conceited. “There is too much of this chest thumping and roaring when he wins. I would like to see him show a bit more humility, like Nadal and Federer.” Australian tennis legend Roy Emerson said of Djokovic in 2011.
Juxtaposing Djokovic’s dubious public perception is universal adoration for Federer and Nadal. The Swiss is feted for his ice cool composure and innate modesty, while the Spaniard is cherished for his resilience and unwavering passion while his shyness off the court has created the image of a lovable brute.
Another possible explanation for Djokovic’s less lofty public standing is aesthetics. Think of Federer and you think of his beautiful, deft ground strokes. Think of Nadal, and the enduring image is his sizzling forehand that appears to explode as if from a cannon. Djokovic does not memorably evoke. Renowned tennis coach Nick Bollettieri said it best when he once described Djokovic as being “perhaps the best put-together player that I’ve seen in over sixty years”.
With no visible flaws, Djokovic is outstanding at every facet of tennis but does not possess that one indelible trademark to sear into the consciousness.
It’s been hard for Djokovic to interrupt the adoration for the established Federer-Nadal rivalry, which has been probably sports best contest over the past decade.
From a cricket perspective, Djokovic’s doppelganger is Ricky Ponting, who had to battle comparisons with Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara for the bulk of his career. All three are retired and remembered as all-time great players, but Ponting’s standing is probably a notch below the other two.
Like Djokovic, Ponting arrived after Tendulkar and Lara had established themselves. Despite being the world’s best bat for a five-year period from 2002-2007, where his Test average was about 70, it always felt Ponting was slightly overshadowed by his illustrious counterparts.
Like Ponting, Djokovic has captured the respect that eluded him earlier in his career. He’s becoming a statesman of the sport and, at 27, is still in his peak years. There is a distinct chance he will finish the year in double digits in Grand Slams (Djokovic currently has seven slams) and dominate the sport like Federer did in the mid-2000s or Nadal circa 2008-2010.
But can he chase the apparitions of Federer and Nadal? Can he sit alongside them on tennis’ Mount Rushmore? Will Djokovic be showered with universal adoration from the public?
Djokovic is in for a wild ride this season and over the next few years. But he should take heed in an old idiom - all good things come in threes.
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Updated Date: Jan 30, 2015 12:20:15 IST