You can call it the loneliness of Novak Djokovic. It’s a strange kind of solitude when the world wonders whether you are really the best. You have numbers on your side: 23 Grand Slams. You have skills nobody can match. As in a cowboy flick, you have been the last man standing numerous times. But as the world ponders, you ponder too.
Novak’s response to the big question — Who’s tennis’ greatest? — was open-ended. “I don’t want to say that I am the greatest because I feel… I’ve said it before… it’s disrespectful towards all the great champions in different eras of our sport that was played in completely different way than it is played today,” he told journalists after winning the French Open last week.
Although Novak was referring to the full sweep of tennis history, it’s obvious the current generation boasts the game’s best. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak represent the pinnacle of sport achievement. To assess Novak, you must come up with a triangular framework. Together, the trio amplifies the game like never before, redrawing its human boundaries.
Individually, each manifests a singular talent; each has found a way to play perfect tennis. In this confluence of genius, it’s difficult to pick individual streams of excellence and convince yourself that one of them is simply the best. John McEnroe simplified the analysis by categorising the greatest by the courts they dominate, be it grass (Roger), clay (Nadal) or hard court (Novak).
Novak summed it viscerally at the Roland Garros news conference: “The truth is that I have always compared myself to these guys, because those two are the two greatest rivals I ever had in my career… they have actually defined me as a player, and all the success that I have, they have contributed to it… because of the rivalries and the match-ups that we had.”
Every era has a miss. We missed enjoying the full flow of McEnroe’s genius in the early 1980s because most of us were overwhelmed by Björn Borg. Ice Borg, whose clinical style focused on consistency and precision, was sport’s coolest motif. SuperBrat, an improviser and a serve-and-volley wizard, was the baddest. Although both were evenly matched, Borg stole the show. McEnroe’s artistry finally got the attention it deserved when Borg left the game in 1981.
So far, Novak has been an outsider. In the culture of nice-guys-finish-first, where Roger and Rafa fit in snugly, he’s the non-conformist. Controversy has stalked him. He’s said no to vaccines and brought his political beliefs to the court. Emotional outbursts have defined him. Let’s compare the three players. While Roger has elevated tennis to a designer craft, Rafa’s game is built around his muscular talent and Novak’s high-performance matrix is shaped by mental toughness.
All three are complete players, goats that can thrive or survive on grass, clay or hard court. Each one is a master tactician, a highly flexible athlete with amazing footwork, a craftsman with an assembly line of skills, and finally, a marathon man with loads of stamina. In essence, each one plays total tennis. While Grand Slams may not be the ultimate arbiter of excellence, it’s no surprise the trio has already snapped 65. In a level playing field, where skill is becoming a hygiene factor, endurance tilts the scales. It has helped Novak race past his two biggest rivals.
Take the 2019 Wimbledon Championship, where Novak quelled the Federer magic to win the Wimbledon finals, his 16th Grand Slam. That game proved many things: that the arc of excellence curves towards mental toughness, that perseverance trumps artistry, that fitness is a permanent ace. Add mental toughness, perseverance, and fitness, and you get a player who’s solid but uninspiring, complete but ungainly, clinical but unmagical.
Take the recent French Open semi-final where 36-year-old Novak outlasted 20-year-old Carlos Alcaraz, matching him shot by shot, serve by serve, and rally by rally in the first two sets. In Jack London’s famous short story, The Game, that details a fight between youth and experience, youth wins because it’s unpredictable. In Paris, on June 9, Novak proved a 36-year-old could be more agile and relentless. Now fast forward to the finals, where Novak was pitted against 24-year-old Casper Ruud. Not only did Novak prove that he could play better and move faster, but he was also signalling the era of the three Magi — Roger, Rafa and Novak — was over. Tennis would now have one magus.
Novak’s loneliness does not stem from the Nadal factor. He has already overtaken him in Grand Slam wins; he’s also tennis’ greatest athlete, something that Nadal is unlikely to be. It’s the Federer factor that looms large and challenges Novak’s greatness. It’s that rare ability to turn tennis into art. It’s that quest for aesthetics, something that Novak will never be able to achieve. The author David Foster Wallace has described Roger’s winners as straight out of The Matrix. How do you beat that? How do you compare a clinically perfect, but inelegant, game with grace? How do you get past Federer in real life?
Despite all that, Novak has emerged as tennis’ greatest because he sees tennis as a mental fitness game. All other things — be it regimen, craft, execution, flexibility or improvisation — help create a battle-ready mind. Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu said every battle is won before it is ever fought. Novak has turned tennis into a mind game where mental toughness provides the leading edge. By doing it consistently and methodically, Novak has been able to demonstrate that a think fest can be exciting. Even unpredictable, like his last game with Alcaraz.
Let’s not cerebrate over who’s greatest. Let’s celebrate the loneliness, and greatness, of Novak.
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