On Novak Djokovic, legacies and the mastery of nuance
In the beginning—in this era of men's tennis, anyway—there was Roger Federer, who ruled the land with a style and grace that bewitched us into humble subjects of his all-surface empire. Then came Rafael Nadal, a black stallion with glowing red eyes, bursting forth through the gates of his enemy.
Those two seemed poised to battle repeatedly for the throne until the arrival of Novak Djokovic, who took an altogether different route—one of consistent cunning and impenetrable persistence. Djokovic is tennis’ version of Varys from Game of Thrones; in a world born of brutality and magic , he is "The Spider," the one who always seems to know everything. Whether through luck of timing or well-orchestrated opportunism, it is now the Serbian who reigns supreme, and his would-be usurpers appear far too exhausted to scale his insurmountable hill.
In tennis, those who show promise at a young age are often singled out as "The Next One," typically with a common caveat. Once he develops his serve, watch out! Ditto developing a more consistent backhand, or honing his fitness. In rarer cases, such as the mercurial Nick Kyrgios, the hypothetical is more like if only he can spite the devil on his shoulder and yank the duct tape off the angel. But with all budding prodigies, these things take time, and a tennis career, like any other, is fleeting. Tournaments come at a furious pace, surfaces change and, save for the winner, egos are always taking a beating.
The spring of youthful talent from which Djokovic emerged seemed destined to come up short against Nadal at the French Open, and either he or Federer in every other tournament. Players like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils, Philipp Kohlschreiber and Andreas Seppi all remain unable to patch the crucial weaknesses that have plagued them since being tabbed as the next big stars. Djokovic, though, saw fit to live up to and exceed expectations, coolly identifying and exploiting the old regimes' flanks on his way to snatching the crown.
Everyone assumed the game’s next great star would, upon overthrowing its established dual monarchy, become one of Federer or Nadal — full stop, and absent any kind of gray area. But while his generational peers fought, floundered or failed, Djokovic forged himself into a maximally obstinate force. He’s become the player he is not by making himself great at one thing or another, but by being brilliant at most everything. In so doing, Djoker has taken something supposedly nonexistent in the discourse — nuance — and made it his game's stone-etched signature. What’s more, he’s done it all with plenty of mileage to spare.
Consider this: Only half of those in the current ATP top ten are under 30 years old. Besides Djokovic, there's Andy Murray (28), Kei Nishikori (25), Rafael Nadal (29), Milos Raonic (24). At 28, Djokovic already has dispatched the members of that list repeatedly and with aplomb, boasting a lopsided career record over all of them except Nadal, against whom the Serbian star is 21–23. A closer look, though, reveals that Djokovic is 4–1 against Rafa since November 2014, and as the Spaniard’s body continues to betray him, one can assume his career edge over Djokovic will soon be a memory.
Of the aforementioned upstarts, Nishikori may be the most intriguing—young enough to where another leap isn’t out of the question, and talented enough to deliver on his potential. In fact, of the five under age 30, Nishikori was the last to beat Djokovic in a major (the semifinals of the 2014 U.S. Open).
That said, it’s hard not to like Djokovic's chances; not just against Nishikori, but against the whole would-be lot. Particularly as each passing day pushes Federer further from his prime, Nadal closer to Evel Knievel’s number of surgeries, and — with no one close enough to call a rival — Djokovic himself into tennis’ ultimate pantheon. After making the final of every Grand Slam in 2015—and capturing all but the French , the only major he has yet to collect—Djokovic’s major-title count has hit double figures. With one more, he'll join Rod Laver and Björn Borg. Three more, and he’ll be an unquestioned top-five player of all time.
What’s so strange is how reluctant we’ve been to view him, and his game, in those all-time terms. Perhaps it’s just a natural withdrawal born from the fading twilight of two polarizing, but equally powerful, forces in Federer and Nadal. Or maybe it’s the gorgeously nuanced, petulantly airtight sphere into which Djokovic’s game seems to fall.
He has the speed, power and footwork to bully Nadal, and the heightened, patient reading of play required to outlast Federer. Beholding "The Djoker" in lengthy rallies is like watching Alex Trebek fire question after question at a contestant, lulling him into a kind of neural-tonal stupor … and then punching him right in the face. Yet it’s exactly that kind of half-suspense, that sense of authorial challenge, that we find ourselves rooting for, in large part because anything — literally any effort more sincere than, say, that of the Richie Tenenbaum variety— is more amusing than the straight-set pummeling Djokovic typically issues.
Regardless of how you feel about him, Djokovic is destined to be remembered in tennis' annals, perhaps even lovingly so. Of course, that's different than being remembered for something, beyond the simple wares of wins. Federer long has been the quintessential tennis artist; Rafa, the template for controlled intensity. Djokovic, meanwhile, exists (and wins) in the spaces within the spaces—triumphal when considered in whole, but far too small for most eyes to see. His career, more than a hermetically sealed epic, will be the one about the great usurper who dethroned a pair of princes at opposite ends of the tennis spectrum. As far as epitaphs go, it’s a pretty good one, even if it lacks the glam and glitz of some of his peers.
Barring catastrophe, Djokovic is headed towards a three-to-five-year rival-less run in which he’ll attempt to surpass Federer's record of 17 major titles.