In three years, Novak Djokovic will be the most decorated man in tennis history

7 Jun

Djok wins FO

With his four-set victory over Andy Murray in Sunday’s French Open final, world number one Novak Djokovic clinched his first title at Roland Garros and twelfth major title overall, placing the Serb five short of tying Roger Federer’s major haul record at 17. Djokovic remains very much in his prime, and, lacking serious rivals, seems well-placed to make a strong bid at passing the Swiss great to become the most decorated man in tennis history. At 29 years of age, the Serb likely has a three-year window to get this done; with boundless motivation and a level of physical fitness the game has never before seen, there is every reason to expect he will succeed.

Winning majors is not easy, and there are at least three factors that could spoil Djokovic’s assault on the tennis record books: motivation, age, and opponents. And yet, when one drills down, each melts away under the sheer force of Djokovic’s drive, fitness, and raw superiority over peers.

Motivation – The Serbian world number one is renowned for his unparalleled physical fitness and the extreme care he takes with everything from diet, to workout schedule, to journal writing and spending time in his oxygen chamber. Some have questioned whether Djokovic will have the patience to maintain this level of grueling, almost robotic self-discipline. It can’t be fun, after all, to nosh on tasteless, if highly nutritious, superfood for every meal. Everyone needs a beer now and then. And how about a cup of coffee every once in a while, instead of the warm water that is Djok’s go–to?

But lack for motivation the Serb does not; in fact, he has everything to play for. Consider that, today, Djokovic is just two major titles shy of pulling off the calendar year grand slam, the most elusive badge of tennis superiority, in which a player wins each major title over the course of a single calendar year, a feat that has only been achieved once in the Open Era[1], by Rod Laver, in 1969. Djokovic would join Laver if he claims the title in Wimbledon next month and in Flushing Meadows at the U.S. Open in September. That seems sufficiently inspiring to keep the Serb slurping avocado smoothies for the duration of 2016.

If Djokovic succeeds in capturing the calendar year grand slam, it would leave him with 14 majors, only three shy – and within calling distance – of tying Federer. At that stage, it would become a realistic objective to tie the Swiss’ mark during 2017, by capturing three of four majors, something Djokovic has already done on two occasions – 2011 and 2015 — and a feat he will by all indications triplicate in 2016.

Even if he falls short of that, and finds himself with 16 or even 15 majors by the end of 2017, the Serb would still have at worst two majors to go to tie Federer and six chances to do it, which, in Djokovician terms, is endlessly achievable. And when one ties something, hunger to surpass hits its apex: Getting from 17 to eighteen would leave the Serb straight ravenous. If a host of factors could prevent Djokovic from eclipsing Fed’s record for major titles won, a lack of motivation is not one of them. 

Age – Djokovic is 29-years-old, which, today, is typically the point at which tennis players hit the height of their playing powers, begin to see their skills steadily peter, and enter an elongated slide toward retirement. Andre Agassi won two majors after turning 30; Roger Federer has won one. It doesn’t happen much. Players lose a step, younger rivals hit their stride, and, the longer one drifts from one’s latest major, the harder it becomes to regain the form, and belief, it takes to win. There are reasons to believe things will be different for Djokovic.

Fitness is the main one. Every part of the Serb’s existence is planned. He has a team of coaches, physical trainers, nutritionists, friends, family, and others who keep his mind, body, spirit, and soul happy and performing at top form at all times. Every aspect of performance – from the psychological, to the physical, to the mental – has been examined, and the best practices and endless resources employed to optimize them. Crucially, Djokovic is fully bought into this regimen. He accepts and embraces he will not have a normal existence during his playing career, and has committed to squeezing as much performance out of himself for as long as he can, even if it means foregoing any modicum of plain living or more earthly pleasures, like Sprite.

While the vast majority of professional tennis players, of necessity, maintain good fitness, a sensible diet, and reasonably clean living,[2] the level of Djokovic’s commitment and the quality of his regimen are unparalleled, both now and historically. Given this, there is strong reason to believe his physical fitness and capacity will not dip as much as they do for other players after turning 30, and that they will remain at a level that will allow him to keep competing for majors well into his fourth decade of existence.

Opponents – This prediction is made all the more probable given the vast gulf that separates Djokovic from his peers. In the early part of his career, the Serb had to compete against two of the greatest champions in tennis history, in Federer and Rafael Nadal, while they were in their prime. Although Djok was limited in his major title haul at the height of those players’ powers, he did win some – four, if you run the numbers through 2011, when one could argue Federer and Nadal began to fall off a bit, and seven through 2014, when they certainly had. But now, the coast is effectively clear, and Djokovic is at the height of his major-winning potential.

No other player comes close to matching the Serb’s current level. The titans of the 2000s, Fed and Nadal, are entering the twilight of their brilliant careers. After a span of excellence that was freakishly injury-free, Federer is now 34 and has a lingering back issue that kept him out for much of the clay court season, including the French Open. Nadal, who has grappled with, and recovered inspiringly from, injuries throughout the second half of his career, worked himself back into competitive form and was seen as a leading contender at this year’s Roland Garros – although most expected him to bow out to Djokovic in the semi-finals – before a serious wrist injury forced him to pull out before the third round. It’s doubtful Nadal will return in time for Wimbledon, and even his dream to play for Spain at the Rio Olympics in August now seems in jeopardy. When it comes to major titles, competing for anything beyond one last hurrah at the French seems highly unlikely for the Spaniard at this stage.

That leaves Andy Murray. A week younger than Djokovic, he and the Serb competed against one another throughout much of their youth, and their rivalry has endured across their professional careers. The two have a similar style of play and quickly rose up the ranks upon turning pro. A beautiful rivalry seemed in the offing, one that would keep tennis fans sated as Fed and Nadal faded from view. Alas, that “rivalry” has proved remarkably one-sided.

Djok and Murray have faced off 34 times, often deep in major tournaments, including in seven major finals. Djokovic has won 24, or 71 percent, of their overall contests, and five of 7 in major championships, with Murray claiming the U.S. Open in 2012 and securing tennis immortality by becoming the first Briton in 77 years to win Wimbledon, in 2013. But aside from those two, their major final contests haven’t proven particularly close.

It’s not so much raw superiority in talent that allows the Serb to dominate the Scot on the biggest occasions: The latter just seems to wane away, as if not really believing he can get it done. This meekness was on full display last Sunday in Paris. After roaring to a 6-3 first-set win, Murray looked inspired, confident — and promptly collapsed. Djok took the next three sets in routine fashion, dropping only seven games in the process.

Murray may squeak out a major or two going forward, just as he did in 2012 and 2013. Yet, with every win, Djok’s confidence grows, while Murray’s droops. And for this reason, we can expect Djokovic to continue making his faux rivalry with Murray a one-sided affair during the twilight of their respective peaks.

Beyond Murray, there is an extremely limited number of players whom one could reasonably expect to win a major over the next three years. These include Stan Wawrinka, the owner of two major titles; Kei Nishikori, a top-five Japanese player who has reached the U.S. Open final and is vying for Asia’s first men’s singles major; Milos Raonic, a young, big-hitting Canadian who is having his best year and seems primed for a break-through, most likely on the grass at Wimbledon; and Dominic Thiem, a 22-year-old Austrian with an elegant game whom many view as the future of men’s tennis. Others, such as the currently free-falling but perhaps one-day resurgent Grigor Dimitrov and young Australian Nick Kyrgios also have the talent to win majors but will have to make major strides in their mental games to even advance to a final Sunday.

Residual – Aside from motivation, fitness, and opponents, there’s probably a residual in there somewhere, encapsulating factors both unknown and unknowable, that will make it hard to pass Fed’s mark. Winning majors is just hard. There’s nerves, frustrations with umpires and ballboys, the vagaries of weather and their delays, and any number of other factors that can send even the most talented, mentally balanced player off the deep end. Some new player could get hot; a talented, title-less veteran could finally figure it out. Injuries lurk, even beneath the veneer of physical perfection. Like the functioning of the human body, a gazillion things must go right for a player to win a major title, even the most gifted and seemingly unassailable among them.

The thing that makes the case for Djokovic-as-all-time-major-title-leader so compelling, though, is that things don’t need to always go right, or even nearly always, in order for him to secure the most coveted distinction in tennis. With twelve majors between now and June 2019, there is plenty of room for Murray, upstarts, residuals, and even minor injuries to have their day and Djokovic still to get the job done. What’s most remarkable about the prospect of the Serb taking Fed’s crown is precisely how unremarkably events need to transpire in order for him to do so. And I’ve just given him three years to get the job done: Why couldn’t he nab a title at Wimbledon in 2019, or steal an Aussie in 2020, which are just outside my forecasting window? 

What does it all mean, Basil?[3]The implications of this transpiration would leave no doubt that Djokovic is the greatest men’s tennis player of all time. Winning six of the next twelve majors would almost certainly imply the Serb’s continued status as the number one-ranked player in the world, giving him more weeks at the top spot than any other player, including Federer, who currently holds that distinction,[4] which is arguably the second most relevant barometer of tennis greatness. Djokovic also did something that Federer could not do, which is beat Nadal at the French. Indeed, the only argument that could be used to justify Federer’s continued label as “greatest of all time” – and I say this as a Fed disciple, someone who idolizes him more than any other athlete in history – is squishy subjective stuff about the Swiss playing the game more elegantly than his robotic, Ivan Drago[5]-like Serbian counterpart.

But that’s rubbish. To hinge all-time greatness on aesthetics is to mock the distinction. We all have our stylistic preferences, and while most would probably agree Federer plays a more visually appealing brand of tennis than Djok, there could well emerge a future contestant for the label of tennis’ best who plays a game that is somewhere in the middle. What would we do then? There’s no answer.

Conclusion – For those who care about the men’s game, the next three years will arguably be the most important in tennis history. Novak Djokovic has put himself in an extremely strong position to lay claim to the sport’s most coveted distinction: having won the most major titles. There are no prohibitive reasons why he will not achieve this, and even those that may slow his roll look flimsy under scrutiny. Many tennis fans are grumbling about the fade-out of the Federer-Nadal rivalry, perhaps the most compelling ever in the men’s game, but it is Djokovic who, over the next 36 months, could pull off the most remarkable achievements in the history of our fair sport.

[1] The Open Era began in 1968, when major tennis tournaments allowed professionals to compete with amateurs.

[2] With Marat Safin, Ernests Gulbis, and Bernard Tomic providing notable – and highly entertaining – exceptions.





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