Novak Djokovic Displays a Greater Greatness, And Could Become Even Greater

In the 2009 Wimbledon final, Roger Federer — down a set — fell behind in the second-set tiebreaker, 6-2. He improbably won a point on his opponent’s serve at 6-5 in that tiebreaker and eventually won the tiebreaker. Federer won the third set and then outlasted Andy Roddick in one of Wimbledon’s greatest championship matches.

Roddick played his best-ever Wimbledon match that day. He graded out to a straight A. He hit only one shot in a meaningful situation that was not as good as it could have been, a backhand volley at 6-5 in that second-set tiebreaker. On grass, where points come and go more quickly and bad bounces off the worn baseline take a measure of control from players, single mistakes loom even larger than they do on clay or hardcourts. Federer turned one point in that 2009 final into a five-set win. Roddick bravely responded to that excruciating second-set tiebreaker loss, but not well enough to win.

Consider, then, what Novak Djokovic had to be thinking after another second-set tiebreaker, six years later, also in a Wimbledon final and also against Roger Federer on his beloved Centre Court.

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Similar to 2009, Federer faced a stack of set points and, with his opponent serving at 6-5, scrambled to win a point from a defensive position. Federer’s 12-10 tiebreaker victory was achieved against the larger run of play, just like 2009. It felt like an escape, just like 2009.

When asked by ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi after match to express what he was thinking at that point, Djokovic said, “You don’t want to know.”

Whatever it was, it worked. Yet, that doesn’t quite do justice to what Djokovic achieved on Sunday at The All-England Club.

Djokovic, after absorbing a searing moment of disappointment, responded with not even the slightest lapse or lull. He watched Federer save two break points in the first game of the third set with letter-perfect play. He watched Federer — playing authoritatively and in full flight for a brief period — get a 40-15 lead at 1-all in the third set.

He just kept coming.

Djokovic played three dazzling return points from 40-15 to get a break chance, and mindful of the pressure a defensive genius applies when in rhythm, Federer overcooked an easy putaway forehand at break point to give Djokovic a re-established advantage. That was the turning point in the match, and after a rain delay at 3-2 in the third, Djokovic was absolutely airtight the rest of the way… just as he’d been airtight before the interruption.

Over the course of four high-intensity sets with deep slices and full-throttle drive groundstrokes, Djokovic — asked to do a lot by Federer — committed only 16 unforced errors, an average of four per set.

In much the same way that Andy Murray produced winning numbers in his match against Federer on Friday but had nothing to show for it, Federer produced winning statistics in this match, but was beaten because — in the dialogal nature of tennis — the other guy was simply better.

Federer hit 67 percent of his first serves. He can’t complain about that number.

Fed won 74 percent of first-serve points. You know Djokovic is going to get back some returns, so Fed can’t complain about that number, either.

Federer was plus-23 in winners versus unforced errors. Against anyone other than Djokovic or an in-form Rafael Nadal, those are winning numbers.

Sorry, mate — Djokovic did happen to be on the other side of the net. Federer met Djokovic on the mountaintop in each of the first two sets, as this match attained a very high level of quality. In set three, one of those individual points slipped from Federer’s grasp at 1-1, and since that one point was a break point, it carried exponentially more value. Djokovic never flinched the way he did in the 2014 final when he gained a break lead in set four, up two sets to one, so unlike 2014, this match did not make its way to a fifth set.

A version of Federer right on the margin between B+ and A- on Centre Court beats just about everyone.

Not Novak Djokovic — not when he’s at his best. He was at his best on Sunday, and thus the history of tennis has taken another highly compelling turn.

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Plenty of people in tennis think too much weight is assigned to major tournaments, and thus to major finals. Yet, if you stop for just a moment, it is really very hard to escape the realization of just how much weight goes into these particular matches.

In order to appreciate the greatness of Novak Djokovic, you need to appreciate the other side of the coin — namely, how we’d be talking about Djokovic if he had lost this match. (Some might think it’s pointless to talk about what-ifs in sports, but they help one appreciate reality a little more.)

If Djokovic had lost this match, the record in major finals would have dipped below .500 again, into Ivan Lendl territory.

If Djokovic had lost this match, he would have once again failed to defend a non-Australian Open title. This is the first time he’s defended a Wimbledon or U.S. Open title.

If Djokovic had lost this match, he would have had to go to the U.S. Open to win two majors in the same year for the first time since 2011. He finally achieved that feat for the second time.

If Djokovic had lost this match, he would have continued to remain behind in the overall head-to-head with Federer. Nole had lost each previous time he had a chance to forge a tie. He finally caught the Swiss, at 20-20.

If Djokovic had lost this match, the man who is so clearly the best player on the planet right now would have had to ask himself a series of unanswerable questions. An off-court life that is so fully flourishing, and a career in its prime years, would have had to coexist with yet another bewildering loss to a Swiss guy in a major final, one month after Roland Garros against Stan Wawrinka.

Given all the things we’d be saying about Djokovic had he lost today — following the conclusion of that second-set tiebreaker — it is that much more remarkable the world No. 1 did not flinch at all at the start of the third set. It’s that much more impressive that a player who looked very ordinary in Friday’s Wimbledon semifinal against Richard Gasquet — and who generally does not play all that well in Wimbledon semifinals — was absolutely flawless even after Federer stole that second set against the run of play.

It’s true that Federer is an increasingly older man these days, but Centre Court is Federer’s most beloved patch of earth. To beat Federer on Centre Court in a Wimbledon final, you have to deliver something VERY special, but only two men have found such magic:

Rafael Nadal merely won the best tennis match ever played (in the eyes of many) to deny Federer in 2008.

Djokovic played an A-minus match against a B+ Federer to win in five sets last year.

This year, Djokovic earned straight As for his performance against B+/A- Federer.

Only this year did Djokovic finally figure out Nadal at the French Open, and yet that very ability to finally conquer Rafa at Roland Garros made his oddly weary second set against Wawrinka that much more of a shock. At Wimbledon, though, Djokovic finds more inner strength. More particularly, he rebounds from crushing losses at Roland Garros to dramatically improve his place in tennis history.

Most of all, though, Djokovic has now beaten Federer — the greatest grasscourt player of all time — in consecutive Wimbledon finals. He did so on days when Federer did not play poorly. (To drive home that last assertion, Djokovic saved two set points in set one with perfect play. He saved all but one break point in this match, and on only one of those points — late in the second set at 5-5 — could it be said that Federer lost the point as opposed to Nole winning it. The world No. 1 prevented Federer from doing very much on all other break-point saves.)

As a result of denying Federer in consecutive years in a Wimbledon final, Djokovic — albeit through an unexpected route (winning two more Wimbledons than French and U.S. Opens combined) — now has nine majors. At 28, he’s five majors behind Nadal and Pete Sampras for second on the all-time list, so at first glance, it seems very hard to think that Djokovic can catch Rafa.

However, just a little further evaluation should make us realize that the Serbian superstar has a genuine window of opportunity to rewrite tennis history, having already used his pen and racquet so authoritatively on Sunday at Wimbledon.

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It is startling, but real: Djokovic, Nadal, and Andy Murray were born within 12 months of each other. Nadal is just a year older than Djokovic and Murray, who were born within a week of each other. In seeing Federer play Murray and Djokovic back-to-back here at Wimbledon — and in appreciating how well Murray played on Friday despite losing in straight sets — one can see how much of a difference there is between Djokovic and Murray, EVEN THOUGH Murray played quite well in the semis. When one contemplates the gulf between Nole and Muzz — EVEN THOUGH the players are ranked 1 and 3 in the world — one can begin to appreciate just how high a standard Djokovic has established.

The key point: Djokovic has established his higher-than-high standard in the most cutthroat period of Open Era men’s tennis. He’s established this standard while being the first man to play two other players (Nadal and Federer) at least 40 times.

Go to Wikipedia or look up other pages with ATP World Tour records.  Don’t look now, but Djokovic — on various all-time lists such as most major finals reached and most major semifinals reached — is poised to attain second place before too long. It’s beyond impressive this can be said, given the way 2012 through the first half of 2014 unfolded.

Tennis fans and pundits have quite reasonably and honestly accorded the most praise and attention over the years to Roger Federer, especially when still in his prime at the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010. Djokovic then delivered his amazing 2011 season, but from 2008 through 2013, Nadal was the man who took Federer’s bar and raised it higher. Nadal’s 2008, 2010 and 2013 seasons included feats — or more precisely, collections of feats — that will rarely if ever be matched in the history of the sport.

Just 13 months ago, Nadal (in the present tense) and Federer (on the basis of his career-long achievements) had still overshadowed Djokovic to a considerable extent — partly because Djokovic had continued to lose more finals at majors than he’d won (6-7 at that point), but also because Nadal’s 2013 marked the kind of resurgence Djokovic had hoped to enjoy that year, and because Federer had continued to win his share of matches against Djokovic, enough to maintain the head-to-head edge.

Moreover, it’s not as though Djokovic ever fixed his U.S. Open problem (he still hasn’t, of course), so when Nadal beat him 13 months ago in the French Open final, Nole had to look at the larger platter of four majors and wonder when or where he was going to be able to make consistent non-Australian breakthroughs.

If you were to look at Djokovic through the prism of 13 months ago — June of 2014 — would you have imagined that Djokovic was going to turn around his track record in major finals and reshape the larger arc of his career at Wimbledon? Against Federer? On Centre Court?

Not even the most ardent and knowledgeable Djokovic fan would have predicted that. (If you find one who claims as much, s/he is lying.)

Careers, like sports themselves, are very organic things. Federer said so himself after this match, noting that the word “maybe” is so prominent in high-stakes competition, the reason why we watch. If outcomes really were preordained, Djokovic would have won four U.S. Opens and a French by now. Conversely, Federer would have won at least one of these last two Wimbledon finals.

But they didn’t.

What’s also a part of the organic nature of a career is that some bloom quickly, others late, and others in between. Just look at the Big Three in this Golden Era of men’s tennis.

Rafael Nadal was and is the early bloomer, the quick study who mastered the arts before Federer and Djokovic did — in terms of age, not chronology, of course. Nadal won five majors by the time he was 22 years and five weeks old. Federer and Djokovic won only one by that point in their lives.

Federer’s career was powered by the ability to maximize his prime: Beginning at an age of 22 years and four months, and continuing through age 28 and five months, the Swiss gobbled up 15 majors. Nadal, over that same period, won nine, Djokovic eight, with a chance to make it nine at the end of that window should he prevail at the U.S. Open.

Here, though, is what the global community of tennis fans has to appreciate about Djokovic: He’s in position to make a late-career (post-28-and-five-months) run, which Federer couldn’t do and Nadal is not in a good position to do.

Though Djokovic is just a year younger than Nadal — and the above points about career rhythms feed into this — he did not log nearly as many miles as Rafa did before 2010, because he wasn’t going deep in major tournaments nearly as often as Nadal was. Nadal — not just in terms of matches or points, but in terms of intensity of play — has poured out so much more in his career to this point than Djokovic has. Nole looks fresh in a much larger career-long context, despite being just a year younger.

Federer, though still quite relevant and still legitimately the second-best player on tour (which is an outrageously remarkable achievement, just before turning 34 this August), will inevitably get weaker, not stronger, as age takes its toll.

Murray is the man who could really cut into Djokovic’s major win total, but as articulated above — and by the last two matches Federer played at Wimbledon this year — the Scotsman is not in Djokovic’s league at the moment.

Then consider the reality of the ATP Lost Boys, the next-wave players a few years behind Djokovic and Nadal and Murray.

When Djokovic is 31 years old, will the 27- and 28-year-old contenders on tour be able to rise to a higher level? If they don’t, Djokovic could get what will be — in tennis terms — several “old-man” majors.

None of us knows how likely this all is, and naturally, the organic flow of human events will shape the story in the fullness of time. The point, though, is to show that Djokovic could enjoy an Autumn Empire akin to what Serena Williams has established on the WTA Tour, with no rival there to match him. It really could happen.

WHETHER it happens or not is an open question. However, the fact that Djokovic has put himself in a position to climb up the charts in men’s tennis — to the point where he could match many of Federer’s and Nadal’s biggest achievements at the most important events in the sport — is something which should give all of us pause.

More specifically, it is something which should make us all begin to put an end to the practice of characterizing Djokovic as a third wheel in this era of ATP competition.

If ever there was a day when Djokovic deserved to leave the shadows cast by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, today — which set all the right new precedents and smashed all the wrong ones — is a pretty good place to start.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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