WE MAY NOT fully appreciate it, but tennis is currently blessed with a champion who's leading a dual assault, on the opposition and on history. Treating the rest of the field as a chew toy, this player went 82--6 and won three major titles in 2015, coming tantalizingly close to winning the Grand Slam, the game's ultimate achievement. Yes, it was followed by acclaim—including athlete-of-the-year-type recognition—but there's a sense that full credit has yet to be issued for the greatness in our midst.
This is an article from the Feb. 8, 2016 issue
We speak of Serbia's Novak Djokovic, who like his fellow No. 1, Serena Williams, came to the 2016 Australian Open trailed by one question: Could he sustain his success? Unlike Serena, he has so far answered in much the same way he hits tennis balls—with force and precision. In beating world No. 2 Andy Murray in Sunday night's final, Djokovic not only won the Aussie title for a record-tying sixth time (Serena and Roy Emerson also have six) but also advanced to at least the mudroom of the All-Time Greats wing. As No. 3 Roger Federer conceded after losing to Djokovic in the semifinals, "Novak right now is a reference for everybody."
As a contrast, Serena's fragility was laid bare in the women's final. One win from her 22nd major title—which would tie Steffi Graf—Serena displayed serious nerves and boundary issues, spraying dozens of shots beyond the court's parameters. Her emboldened opponent, No. 6 Angelique Kerber, a German lefty, met the moment and did what so few colleagues have in the past: hooked a big fish and held on when it started to wiggle free. After withstanding the inevitable Serena rally, Kerber fell to her knees when the defending champ erred on a forehand volley on match point, giving Kerber a 6--4, 3--6, 6--4 win and the biggest title of her career. How rare was a loss in a Grand Slam final for Serena? Before Kerber, she had won her last eight and was 21--4 overall. "Now I can say I'm a Grand Slam champion," Kerber gushed, "so it sounds really crazy!"
What doesn't sound crazy is crowning Djokovic the best tennis player in the world. At age 28 he is up to 11 majors—tied with Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg, within three of Pete Sampras's and Rafael Nadal's 14 and within sniffing distance of Federer's record 17. Asked about his current superiority, Djokovic said, "I don't want to allow myself to be in that frame of mind, the person who becomes too arrogant or thinks he's a higher being or better than everybody else. You can get a big slap from karma very soon. And I don't want that."
Coaches got creative leading up to signing day
Michigan's Jim Harbaugh had "sleepovers" at the homes of kicker Quinn Nordin and DE Connor Murphy (above, right).
Alabama's Nick Saban did the wobble with CB Jared Mayden II.
Clemson's Dabo Swinney went sledding down the hill in Death Valley.
Notre Dame parked a team equipment truck in the Savannah neighborhood of WR Demetris Robertson.
Then Georgia coach Mark Richt flew to Lake Stevens, Wash., the day after a game to have breakfast with QB Jacob Eason (who is still heading to Athens, even though Richt is now at Miami).