If men’s tennis was a family, then Novak Djokovic wouldn’t feel out of place at the head of the dinner table. For, the Serb is calling the shots in world tennis at the moment, asking the more senior members of the Big Three club—Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal—to not rest on their laurels if they wish to maintain their reign.
Statistically as well as skillfully, the new world No. 1’s record eighth Australian Open triumph has ensured that the sport’s eternal GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) debate is not restricted to a two-way race.
First, the numbers. Djokovic got his hands on Grand Slam No. 17 on Sunday, just two shy of Nadal’s tally of 19 and three off the leader of the pack, Federer (20). At 32 years old, Djokovic is the youngest of the three — Nadal is 33 and Federer 38. Since the start of 2017, each of the year’s four Grand Slam titles has been shared by these three gentlemen, but dig deeper and you’ll find that while Nadal and Federer aren’t slowing down just yet, Djokovic is ramping up a couple of gears.
Of the last 13 Grand Slams that the trio has won, Djokovic has won five, with Nadal taking five and Federer three. But the Serb’s five triumphs have come out of the previous seven Majors, an intimidating run of form since the 2018 Wimbledon that has seen only Nadal share the Grand Slam stage with him.
Djokovic says he doesn’t drink alcohol, yet he is beginning to age like fine wine. The Serb’s last five Grand Slams have come after turning 30, making it the joint most number of Grand Slam singles titles won by any player after 30 alongside Nadal (Federer sits third with four).
But more than statistical supremacy, Djokovic is showing who’s the boss on the court, where both Federer and Nadal have struggled to find ways to apply the brakes on the Serbian juggernaut.
Take the most recent example of his Australian Open semi-final against Federer. The Swiss, not at his 100 per cent physically, came out swinging with the mindset of going for broke against a player who makes you earn every point. Federer raced to a 5-2 lead, but once a visibly shaken Djokovic gathered himself from the early onslaught, Federer was never in the contest, the Serb wrapping up the victory 7-6(1), 6-4, 6-3.
Djokovic has been a perennial thorn for both his illustrious colleagues, enjoying a superior head-to-head record against Federer (27-23) as well as Nadal (29-26). But over the last few years, both these Djokovic rivalries have become overwhelmingly one-sided. Consider this: Since the start of the 2015 season, all of Djokovic’s victories against Nadal have come in straight sets, except the 2018 Wimbledon semi-final that went to five sets. In this period, the two have played each other 13 times, with Djokovic winning 10 of those encounters.
His numbers with Federer are along similar lines, with Djokovic winning 10 out of the 14 battles between the two since 2015. The Swiss’s last Grand Slam victory over Djokovic came way back in the 2012 Wimbledon, although Federer came agonisingly close to ending the wait in the same event last year.
But other than the odd tussle, it has largely been one-way traffic for Djokovic against the two heavyweights of the sport.
“He (Djokovic) has been the best player in the world on hard the last couple of years,” Nadal said during the ATP Cup last month.
“So to play against the best player is always difficult.”
And it isn’t going to get any easier either. Despite possessing a near perfect and all-round game, Djokovic is constantly giving his skills a tweak, like he did with his second serve at this Australian Open. It was quicker, meaner and more threatening.
“What I can do to still improve? There are many things on the tennis court that I can still improve. That excites me and motivates me to go day in, day out with my commitments, with my practice sessions, because there’s always something to work on, there are always more trophies to win,” Djokovic said after winning his eighth Aussie Open title.
Unlike Nadal, Djokovic is not shy of stating that he is aiming for the sky, aiming to bag the most Grand Slam titles in history, aiming to become the best tennis player in the world. Going by his recent run of dominance, few would bet against it.
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