As Federer’s and Nadal’s powers have waned, Djokovic rose at the right time to give himself a chance at not finishing as just another great player. He wants to be the greatest.
Last September, Novak Djokovic was still looking for love. As he played out an enthralling four-set final against Roger Federer in the US Open final, he was the subject of boos and jeers from the crowd. There was nothing that he had done wrong. The boisterous New York crowd, out of their love for Federer, disrupted Djokovic in his service motion with catcalls. It was a sight most unedifying.
The Serb, though, took on the role of a villain. He celebrated points by bellowing and screaming, safe in the knowledge that he was on the right path. After his victory that gave him his 10th Grand Slam title, however, Djokovic chose the diplomatic way out. He said he understood why the crowd loves Federer and he needed to earn their support. What else could he have done, though?
In the aftermath of the final, many claimed that Djokovic was the champion we had but not the champion we deserved. As compared to the love showered upon Federer and Rafael Nadal, the world’s number-one received very little. Djokovic went on to win another Australian Open at the start of this year but he stalled the rising sympathy wave in his direction in March. His comments on women’s tennis in Miami presented him as a man on the wrong side of history.
Yet, there he was in Paris, on the brink of history. Nobody in the Open Era, which started with the 1968 French Open when professional players were first allowed to participate in Grand Slams, had held all four titles by winning them on three different surfaces: hard court, clay and grass. As he went through the rounds, Djokovic seemed to be weighed down by the history he sought to make. It was a truly monumental task that lay in front of him.
The conditions were hardly perfect. Rains threatened to completely wreck the schedule; with no roof at the Philippe Chatrier Court (the main show court at Roland Garros), players were forced to battle in situations that were far from ideal. Mindful of the possibility of the tournament spilling over to a weekday finish, the organisers conducted matches whenever they could. Djokovic didn’t appreciate the demand to play on slippery, heavy courts. At one stage during his quarterfinal versus Tomas Berdych, the Serb was visibly frustrated at the improper state of the playing surface. Play was suspended, even though it continued on other courts as the weather had not really changed much.
Another strange thing occurred in that quarterfinal versus Berdych. Annoyed after losing a point, Djokovic threw his racquet in disgust. Fortunately, the line judge behind him was alert to the danger and swerved away. The racquet did not miss by much. It was the closest Djokovic came to losing his dream. If the racquet had hit the line judge, he would have been disqualified from the tournament. Fate was playing cruel games.
But he reached the final, where he ran into Andy Murray on Sunday. The beginning was painful. Nervous and tight, Djokovic lost the first set to a man he was supposed to dominate. It seemed that, like last year, Djokovic would fall at the final hurdle and fail to win his first French Open. Only four men in the Open Era – Rod Laver, Andre Agassi, Federer and Nadal – had managed to win all the Slam titles in their career. Djokovic wanted to be the fifth.
Mindful of the opportunity that lay in front of him, Djokovic shook off the rust and slowly proceeded to unravel Murray’s challenge. Soon, the first set seemed to be an elaborate charade to tantalise his opponent before pulling the prize away. Djokovic cruised to win the next two sets and took a 5-2 lead in the fourth.
He was a game away from immortality. In that moment, his intense focus loosened up. Djokovic recognised what he was about to achieve. He suddenly lost two games and Murray saw a window of opportunity. Djokovic was left with a chance to serve it out.
Four points later, he stood a point away from entering a pantheon only he had built. At that very moment, Djokovic experienced transcendence. “In the last point I don’t even remember what happened. It’s like my spirit has left my body and I was just observing my body … hoping that Andy will make a mistake, which happened. It was a thrilling moment. One of the most beautiful I have had in my career.”
Dawn of the Djokovic era
It is a triumph worth admiring over and over again. Even Murray considered himself special just on account of being a part of Djokovic’s history-making success. “It’s not happened for an extremely long time and it’s going to take an extremely long time for it to happen again… obviously it sucks to lose the match … I’m proud to have been part of today,” said the Scot. Laver was the only man to have held all four titles at once but he won three of them on grass. This, as many have called it, is the Djokovic Slam.
It’s also the Djokovic era now. When the Serb turned professional, he could not have predicted this day would arrive. In fact, he was not even happy to play alongside greats like Federer and Nadal. “At the beginning I was not glad to be part of their era. Later on I realised that in life everything happens for a reason. You’re put in this position with a purpose, a purpose to learn and to grow and to evolve,” he said in 2013.
Learn he has. Djokovic’s early years on the professional circuit were marked by a fragile mentality that was manifested in the high incidence of his physical problems. Such was his propensity to crumble under pressure, he came to be seen as a figure who would use bodily suffering as an excuse to explain his failings away. In 2007, the usually restrained Federer remarked, “I think he’s a joke.”
Djokovic did not earn any favours by coming across as a youngster who wore his heart on his sleeve. He spoke his mind every now and then, repulsing many of his peers. Djokovic’s troubled childhood in war-torn Belgrade deeply informed his world view; his light-heartedness was seemingly a response to the tough times he had seen.
However, the mental demons restricted his development. To cure his fallibilities, Djokovic sought a solution and found it in a combination of ways. He changed his diet by eschewing gluten and dairy products; for his mental issues, faith healing seemed to be the answer. It was a curious mix of the latest technology and alternative medicine.
In 2011, Djokovic returned a changed man and player. Since then, he has won 11 of his 12 Slam titles. The renowned coach Nick Bollettieri was moved to call Djokovic “perhaps the best put-together player that I’ve seen in over sixty years.” It was a curious use of phrase – “put together.” The elasticity of Djokovic’s body gives the sense that it’s an assembled machine. A 29-year-old machine.
Despite the changes he made to his diet and mind, the results were not overly satisfying. Indeed, Djokovic has lost eight Slam finals. When Nadal defeated him in the French Open final two years ago, he had a negative record in title clashes (6-7). However, as Federer and Nadal’s powers have waned, Djokovic rose at the right time to give himself a chance at not finishing as just another great player. He wants to be the greatest.
Six wins out of the last seven Slam finals have built his case up. Winning four in a row only embellishes it. If Djokovic claims the next two Slam titles this year and the Olympics gold medal in Rio de Janeiro, he will become the first man to earn the Golden Slam in the history of tennis. Only the first man, though: Steffi Graf did that in 1988. But Djokovic can build a few more pantheons for himself.
Surely, winning 18 Slam titles to eclipse Federer’s record is a realistic goal now. For a man who returns serve like nobody else in history, that would be some response to all the doubts and doubters who have dogged him.
Throughout Sunday, as he went about dismantling Murray with surgical precision, the crowd in Paris cheered wildly for him. It was a sight not seen before. The tennis-loving public had not chosen him as the object of their partisan support until this time at Roland Garros. What tipped the majority of the attendance in his favour? One has to surmise that it’s probably his record. A record that now gleams so brightly that you cannot ignore it.
It’s only fair that Djokovic gets the plaudits coming his way. It has been a long road for him. Last September, he spoke about earning the support of fans like Federer has. The Swiss legend is loved not just for what he has won but also for the way he won it. A monument of success decorated by wreaths of grace and flair that wowed people around the world.
Djokovic has earned the admiration for his achievement. Whether he’s loved for the way he plays his tennis, though, remains still in doubt. However, it would be meaningless to celebrate him without an appreciation of the style of tennis that he plays. It’s hard on the body and mind. It sometimes hurts the eye to watch him play as he lunges awkwardly to keep the point going. But it’s the style that wins him the titles.
When Djokovic was not inclined to push himself beyond his limits, his refusal to fight left us uncomfortable. Now that he pushes the boundaries of credulity with an approach to tennis best called unreasonable, we’re still uncomfortable. Perhaps, this is how Djokovic should finish his career. In a world with unbelievable success, unreasonable tennis and an indecipherable mind that will continue to wreak confusion.
Priyansh is a Chevening Scholar studying the sociology of sport at Loughborough University, United Kingdom.
Note: The headline previously stated that Djokovic held the ‘calendar slam’ on four surfaces. He doesn’t have the calendar slam, only four Grand Slams on three surface, and the headline has been corrected.