Let's start by taking a moment to eulogize the Roger Federer--Rafael Nadal rivalry, which, with characteristic grace, is winding down. Just as styles make fights in boxing, so too do styles make tennis matches. Federer-Nadal pitted righty versus lefty, art versus science, creativity versus relentless pragmatism, otherworldly talent versus otherworldly competitive zeal. And while unrelentingly intense, the rivalry was unmarred by enmity—neither guy could persuade himself to dislike the other. The odd effect was to make it feel wholly normal to root for both. I like Duke and Carolina!
Sadly Federer-Nadal isn't what it used to be. On Sunday in Rome, Nadal beat Federer for the 20th time in 30 meetings, the latter looking all of his 31 years. Novak Djokovic is, indisputably, the new king, but the succession has been awkward. When the Serb first broke into the Federer-Nadal hierarchy, he was seen as an interloper, the little brother who only grudgingly was allowed to play with the big kids. As Djokovic began winning consistently, he came to resemble a tennis-playing Larry Holmes. That is, a perfectly legitimate and worthy champion, but one with the misfortune of following a beloved legend. In this case, two.
It's a shame. In a vacuum, Djokovic would be celebrated unconditionally. At 25, he has already won six major singles titles, had one of the most dominant seasons ever, captained winning Davis Cup teams and spent most of the past two years ranked No. 1. He's handsome, he's outgoing, he's multilingual. He dances on Leno and shot a scene for The Expendables 2.
We ask our athletes to "rise to the challenge." Djokovic epitomizes this. While other players cursed their existential misfortune for coming of age in the Federer-Nadal era and settled for bronze, Djokovic simply dealt with it. It took a while, but he began to beat Federer regularly and then thoroughly solved the Nadal riddle. Since 2011 he's defeated Nadal in eight of their 11 matches, all finals. What began as a tactical edge—Nadal's high bounces and spin-laden shots can't penetrate Djokovic the way they do other players, including Federer—has turned into a psychological one.
May 27, 2013
Still, Djokovic hasn't much captured the public imagination. It's been suggested that, especially in Western Europe, Djokovic's outspoken support for his native Serbia undercuts his popularity. And while his game is devoid of weakness, he doesn't conjure magic when he plays. Mostly, though, Djokovic suffers for being neither Roger Federer nor Rafael Nadal. Fans made their investment in one or the other (and sometimes both) and have little capital left to spend backing the new guy.
Next week Djokovic will try to win the French Open, the one Grand Slam event that has eluded him. In fact, only two active men have ever won at Roland Garros. Nadal has lost only one match in Paris since 2005 and is the defending champion, having beaten Djokovic in last year's final. Nadal also arrives in Paris in top form, while Djokovic lost in successive tune-ups.
Still, we'll pick Djokovic. He has already taken down Nadal once on clay this spring, renewing his tenancy in Nadal's head. (What's more, Nadal will be seeded fourth, so his draw will be more difficult than usual.) Djokovic can bring his peerless fitness to bear in best-of-five-sets ground campaigns. The Parisian crowds that reflexively side with underdogs will root for him to break through, too.
A title in Paris would elevate Djokovic to a new level, giving him the Career Slam and putting him halfway to the Grand Slam (all four majors in a single year), the sport's holy grail, which no male has achieved since Rod Laver 44 years ago. Maybe then Djokovic will start getting his due. Maybe then, just as Holmes eventually was, he'll be heralded as an alltime great in his own right.
Though Djokovic suffers from being neither Federer nor Nadal, he is, indisputably, the new king.