Novak Djokovic is a man on a mission. To win Grand Slam titles, yes, but also to win over the hearts of the fans who are only just beginning to take to him with the same enthusiasm as his great rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
After winning the French Open in Paris last month, the Serbian world No. 1 gifted his winning racquet to a young boy who had been shouting out constant encouragement when he went two sets to love down against Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas. “He was actually giving me tactics, he was coaching me literally,” Djokovic said by way of explanation.
On Sunday evening, after drawing abreast of Federer and Nadal at 20 Grand Slam crowns each by winning a sixth Wimbledon title, Djokovic played true to recent self, this time making a young girl’s day on Centre Court. After quelling a strong challenge from Italian Matteo Berrettini, he ran across to the little one holding a poster of his with an adjective for each letter of his first name. It read ‘Number 1, Outstanding, Victorious, Ambitious, Kissable.’ “She was the cutest,” Djokovic tweeted when the dust had settled.
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On both occasions, the show-court audiences burst into spontaneous, sustained applause and the respective videos went viral on social media. As PR exercises go, Djokovic could not have gotten the timing or the content better. He would, though, like to think of those as further examples of his connect with the fans, even if the fans themselves might have been somewhat reluctant to reciprocate in kind in the past.
While it might be simplistic to say that the best tennis player on the planet currently does not need validation, try telling that to a performer. They don’t delight in victories and successes alone; they want to be acclaimed as entertainers, they want to be adored and loved as much as they are respected. To Federer and Nadal, adoration and love came early, easily, readily. It must have hurt Djokovic that, despite his best efforts, he often got little beyond respect outside of his Serbian support base, which has bordered on the overtly fanatical. Now though, with respect complemented by admiration and a sense of acceptance of his persona beyond the tennis, Djokovic can allow himself a smile of contentment were he so inclined.
Djokovic’s recent run is a remarkable testimony to his fitness, hunger, overwhelming consistency and a bloody-mindedness that comes only to the unique. When he won his second Slam back in 2011, Federer already had 16 Majors and Nadal nine. In the last decade alone, Djokovic has won a staggering 18 Slams; any which way you look at it, that is beyond impressive.
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It’s only a matter of time before Djokovic leaves ‘Fedal’, as Federer and Nadal are jointly called, in his wake. Already this year, he has won all three Slams, making him the first in 52 years to do so. When he won the French for a second time, last month, he became the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to wear more than one crown at each of the four majors. That he bearded Nadal in beloved red-clay den at Roland Garros was the ultimate affirmation that Djokovic is now equally at home on that surface as he is at Wimbledon, or the Australian Open, which he has won an unprecedented nine times.
Barring the unforeseen, it is difficult to see Djokovic ease past the other two great champions of our time in New York in September. Federer is tottering unsteadily, clearly on the last legs of a glorious career that has lost little sheen despite his quarterfinal humbling at Wimbledon by Hubert Hurcacz last week. By the time of the US Open, he will be well past 40, and will find the younger guns as much of a challenge as he will Djokovic, whom he is unlikely to face before the second week by which time he might be running on empty physically.
The Roland Garros defeat must have left deep psychological scars that even someone as mentally resolute as Nadal, who has won the French 13 times, will be hard pressed to overcome. While he is only a year older than the 34-year-old Djokovic, a far more ravaged body resides inside his fragile frame. His high-octane game based on loads of running and heavy, wristy hitting has taken a severe toll and necessitated him to go under the surgeon’s knife more than once. Nadal is nothing if not a competitor. He will never stop trying, he will never give up, but whether that determination will be enough any longer to stop the marauding Djokovic in his tracks is the big question.
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Djokovic had stirred a hornet’s nest in May when he said he, Federer and Nadal were reinventing ‘Next Gen’, as the chasing pack of young guns is often referred to. If the younger lot was cut to the quick, it has been unable to respond. To prove that his statement was no empty boast, Djokovic pocketed the next two Slams while the so-called champions of the future came apart at the seams, their temperamental weaknesses exposed at the crunch repeatedly.
Only once in the last 13 Slams has anyone other than Djokovic (8) or Nadal emerged triumphant. But when Dominic Thiem won in New York last year, ‘Fedal’ had withdrawn from the tournament over COVID-related concerns and Djokovic was thrown out of the tournament for accidentally hitting a linesperson with a ‘dead ball.’ The Thiems, Tsitsipas’, Zverevs and Medvedevs will court Slam success in future, undoubtedly. At the current pace, that future is a while coming.
The sky is truly the limit for Djokovic, firmly on course for the first men’s calendar Grand Slam since Laver in 1969. Unless he gets bored, and it’s difficult to see how or why, the man who has turned sceptics around with his magical displays and crowd-pleasing conduct will raise the bar so impossibly high that his final tally might never be surpassed. Not in our lifetime, at least.