After winning the Australian Open a couple of years ago, Novak Djokovic faced a question from a veteran Italian journalist whose style is to downplay the achievement of the moment and look ahead. Djokovic interrupted him with a pitch perfect imitation. “Not too bad-eh,” said the Serb, before switching into Italian, “Niente (in) particolare! (Nothing special)”. The press conference dissolved into laughter.
As Wimbledon got underway this week, Djokovic is the overwhelming favorite to win, which would put him in a very special tie with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal with 20 Grand Slam titles each. But in many senses, the race to achieve the greatest track record in men’s tennis is already over.
Also Read | The return of the old guard at Wimbledon
Even if Djokovic does not win a Grand Slam of all four majors this year, a milestone not achieved since Rod Laver did it in 1969, surpassing his great rivals in major titles is within cup-kissing distance. This Wimbledon will thus likely bring to an end the debate. In a sense, he has triumphed already. His 19 Grand Slams are a more diverse mix than Federer and Nadal’s 20 each. He has excelled also at the ‘fifth’ Grand Slam, the year-end ATP Finals on fast indoor carpet, which he has won five times against Federer’s six (a title Nadal has never won). And, Djokovic is the only player to have won the ATP tour’s nine, elite 1,000 point tournaments and he has done so twice. At 34, Djokovic is a year younger than Nadal and six years younger than Federer.
In head to head matches, the Serb leads the Swiss 27 to 23 and the Spaniard 30 to 28. While these tallies seem close, they actually mask a huge momentum shift in favour of the Serb. He has not lost to Nadal on a surface other than the Spaniard’s beloved clay since the finals of the US Open …in 2013. Federer has not beaten him in the finals of a Grand Slam or the year- end ATP tour finals since Wimbledon – in 2012. For almost a decade, the Djokovic vs Nadal vs Federer debates have gotten so overheated because the matches are nail-biters as his last Wimbledon final against Federer was and his win against Nadal in Paris was in June, but other than on clay, Djokovic always wins.
That these stellar results have come against a backdrop of heavy crowd support for his rivals makes them more remarkable. On Monday, Djokovic found himself points from losing the first set against the British 19-year-old Jack Draper. The crowd was almost as frenzied as while seeking to push Federer across the finish line in the 2019 final, which Djokovic won after facing two match points.
Amid that deafening outpouring of nationalist fervor on Monday, Djokovic allowed himself a wry smile. It is a trademark; it flashed also in the finals against Federer two years ago just as the Swiss appeared to have the upper hand. There is cockiness to that smile but also a calm assurance. He is certain he can win, whatever the odds. On Monday, he lost the first set but then won 13 of the first 16 points in the second set, winning 4-6, 6-1,6-2,6-2. Djokovic’s come-from-behind routine has become so predictable that it appears as if his opponents might need to sneak up on him during the changeover and beat him on the head with their rackets to win.
Consistently underplayed in the prevailing narrative is not only Djokovic’s dominance of major finals (aside from the French) but also how extraordinary his story is. While Federer and Nadal had comfortable lives as teenagers with fathers who worked as a pharmaceutical executive and a successful businessman respectively, Djokovic came out of war-torn Serbia. He was spotted at the age of five by the great Serbian coach Jelena Gencic, who also coached Monica Seles and Goran Ivanisevic. Gencic was running a tennis camp in the mountain resort town where Djokovic’s parents ran a small pizzeria. Vojin Velickovic, who has followed Djokovic’s career for years for Belgrade-based Sportski Zurnal, says that Gencic, who died in June 2013 during the French Open, was impressed early on by his single-mindedness. “Even at six or seven, he came early to every practice. He was very diligent,” says Velickovic. Gencic told Djokovic’s parents that Novak could become one of the greatest players in history and encouraged a move to a tennis academy in Munich. When Djokovic visited Gencic with a replica of his Wimbledon trophy in 2011, she joked that he must come back with the French Open trophy as well.
Even though the Serb has lost at Roland Garros much more often than he has won, paradoxically it has been the backdrop for crucial turning points in his career. In 2010, he was beaten by Jurgen Melzer after leading two sets to love in a tense quarterfinal. Velickovic remembers feeling outraged because a crucial line call went against Djokovic was revealed on the TV replay to be a mistake. “He blamed himself,” recalls Velickovic. “He finds a solution within himself.” Djokovic admitted to crying afterwards, but resolved to play more aggressively in tense closing moments of the match. This partly turned the tide in his rivalry with Nadal and Federer.
Even more traumatic was Djokovic’s loss at the French in 2018 to the Italian Marco Cecchinato, ranked 72 in the world. Along with Federer, Djokovic is among the most articulate of players in post-match press conferences and in a few languages at that. That day, he appeared disoriented and went to the wrong interview room. He refused to confirm whether he would be at Wimbledon a few weeks later. Many thought his career was tottering.
Instead, like something out of a Greek epic, that low point became the foundation for his current supremacy. He brought back his long-time coach Marian Vajda and put that mental fragility and elbow surgery in February that year behind him. Boris Becker, who coached Djokovic from 2013 to 2016, recalls that Djokovic’s elbow problems were so severe that he even experimented with an awkward new service motion culminated in that embarrassing loss at the French in 2018. Commentating on Djokovic’s Monday match at Wimbledon, Becker said such a crisis usually defines champions: “The question is how do you bounce back?…Here we are at 19 Slams.”
Indeed, Djokovic’s recent defeat of Nadal at the French Open, which the Spaniard has won 13 times, may prove another turning point. In the press conference afterwards, Nadal partly blamed the cooler evening conditions, which he said dampened the effect of his high bouncing topspin strokes, for his loss. Days afterward, Nadal pulled out of Wimbledon and the Olympics. It’s possible he could recover from the huge blow and return refreshed and improved; Nadal has become a more aggressive player since Carlos Moya started coaching him in 2016.
But, given how many defeats Djokovic has handed Nadal consecutively in major finals other than on clay since 2013, the morale-destroying loss for Nadal at Roland Garros might also mean that Djokovic has now cemented an unbreakable mental edge. Federer, meanwhile, turns 40 on 8 August and has often looked rusty and not yet primed for match play this summer after an 18-month break for knee surgeries. The consistency of the next generation at Grand Slams still looks suspect.
This could leave the Serb relatively unchallenged in the next year or two, an improbable prospect for a 34-year-old. Fourteen years ago, while following Djokovic around for an article on tennis’ new star as he practiced at Wimbledon, I overheard his mother teaching his father a new word in English. “Un—believable?” his father Srdjan asked. “Unbelievable,” his mother Dijana repeated very slowly. When the final instalment of their son’s epic biography is written, “unbelievable” should be in its title.
Also Read | How to get strong with just a pair of dumbbells