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No Djokes: How will we remember Nole?

What does Novak Djokovic’s return to Grand Slam winning ways mean for his career and legacy?

What does ‘all-time greatness’ entail? What does an athlete need to accomplish to ascend to the upper echelons of their craft? Is that based on titles? Skills? Capturing a generation’s imagination?

And how do we as a society collectively make these judgements?

I have assaulted you with a torrent of difficult questions. Yet, they seem so relevant to that plucky contender of the golden generation, Nole. And also probably why we are in the most exciting era of men’s tennis.

Much has been written of the masterful Roger Federer’s grace on the court. It has been likened to a near transcendental, religious experience. His insatiable appetite to keep winning even into his thirties is unparalleled. 17 Grand Slam titles on top of this makes a formidable case for greatest player of all-time status. The sheer contrast of styles between him and the Spanish warrior, Rafael Nadal has made their rivalry the stuff of legend. The elemental force of Rafa, the brutality of his exertion on court, his dominance on clay and of course, his own amazing Grand Slam tally qualifies him as one of the best ever to do it. And if he can resist the wear-and-tear of his body, he certainly has a few more titles left in him.

Add to the mix, the immensely likeable Serbian. From absolutely clutch performances on the court to player impressions and ballkid bonding, the Djoker has been terrific for the game. With that combination of mental strength and talent, you can’t help but think that Djokovic would have already accumulated twice as many titles if he was competing in any other period of the sport.

Consider his record given his circumstances: amongst the group of 6-8 Grand Slam title holders, he has the highest Grand Slam winning percentage. This cohort of greats include Lendl, Connors, McEnroe, Agassi and interestingly his own coach, Boris Becker and Fedex’s Stefan Edberg. Most strikingly, with years of tennis left in him, he is already in the middle of the group in terms of Grand Slam titles (7), finals, semifinals and match wins. And weeks at no.1 (an often underrated metric) which he will add to after dislodging Nadal from the top.

All this in possibly the most competitive age of tennis, that is becoming more and more fierce. There are slew of worthy challengers right on the heels of the big four (first mention of Murray so far in this piece!), and the last couple weeks at the All England Lawn and Tennis Club were a reflection of this.

Wimbledon 2014

Wimbledon is always a delight for passionate tennis fans and casual observers alike. But with the majority of eyeballs fixated on the abundance of colourful drama in Brazil, they really had to step it up this year. All whites, strawberries and cream and even additional celebrity sightings weren’t going to be enough.

The tennis delivered. In some style.

Nick Kyrgios was a breath of fresh air who will now be followed closely on the circuit. Grigor Dimitrov, lauded for years for his prowess both on and off the court appears to have matured into a serious top ten player and Grand Slam prospect. Wawrinka remains amazingly consistent and seems to be stealing Andy Murray’s thunder and his berth in the ‘Big Four’ contingent.

It was an awesome year for Canadian tennis with finalist Eugenie Bouchard showing tremendous promise for the future. Compatriot Milos Raonic had the deadliest serve of the tournament and a well-deserved run to the semis. I must also mention Petra Kvitova’s scintillating victory in the final, pulverizing Bouchard who was most people’s favourite to win.

“Consider his record given his circumstances: amongst the group of 6-8 Grand Slam title holders, he has the highest Grand Slam winning percentage. This cohort of greats include Lendl, Connors, McEnroe, Agassi and interestingly his own coach, Boris Becker and Fedex’s Stefan Edberg.”

But the highest lights had to be (not for the first time in a Grand Slam), Federer and Djokovic . Federer playing at this level at 32 was a treat.. He had a fantastic tournament and his partnership with his former idol Edberg is one of the most exciting things on the tour this year. He served and volleyed to great effect on a surface where this style of tennis seemed to have forgotten its innate self.

And then you had Djokovic, not playing as fluidly as Federer but fighting resolutely to progress at every stage. Once again his partnership with coach Boris Becker, has added to his mental strength and the German’s doggedness has rubbed off on him. They’ve clearly worked hard on his serve, which has improved leaps and bounds, especially on the grass.

In that magical final, he used his second serve superbly. Given that has the best return of serve in the game and is arguably the best mover on court, when he serves well it requires an unbelievably high standard of tennis to oust him. Federer was playing at the level. This first set, as both players agreed to after, was one of the best sets either of them had been involved in. For Roger to play like that, with so much hunger, after 17 Grand Slams speaks volumes of his love for the game and what a great champion he is. But sustaining that over five sets, despite the marvellous fourth set comeback was going to be tough against Djokovic.

And Djoker showed the killer instinct he appeared to have misplaced these last couple of years (having lost his last three Grand Slam finals) by pouncing on Federer’s serve to snatch what felt like an anticlimactic end to such an epic match.

So while Wimbledon 2014 will be remembered for Fedberg - Beckovic and that world class final, I think that the win was particularly significant for Novak’s career and where he goes from here: his legacy.

The Future?

The narrative of tennis has predominantly been one of great rivalries. Stories are told of Laver-Emerson, Borg-McEnroe-Connors, Becker-Edberg-Lendl, Sampras-Agassi and they will most certainly, of Federer-Nadal-Djokovic.

The antics of McEnroe against the icy demeanour of Borg versus the arrogance of Jimmy Connors are some of the most memorable vignettes in tennis. Agassi’s charismatic career full of the highest highs and lowest lows. This is really what gets audiences invested in the sport. And all of these players are legends.

“But with the majority of eyeballs fixated on the abundance of colourful drama in Brazil, they really had to step it up this year. All whites, strawberries and cream and even additional celebrity sightings weren’t going to be enough. ”

But how does one objectively assess an even higher tier: the ‘greatest of all-time’. Such a distinction warrants extreme exclusivity and is not a label to be thrown around loosely. It is someone that has the entire package: several titles, well-rounded game, nerves of steel, favourite of the crowd, huge impact on our popular culture, and finally, thoroughly dominant at the peak of their powers.

As a society we often make these judgements as a consequence of what is written and said in the media, by ‘pundits’ and former players, and, in individual sports, how dominant a player is over the rest of the tour (like a Tiger Woods, Federer or even Schumacher). And the permeation of these views shapes popular opinion and discourse. There is of course also, the passage of time. It is extremely difficult to make such claims of players still currently playing the game and there is certainly a bias towards older legends as comparisons over various parameters are challenging

But I like to think of the G.O.A.T’s as those who carved out their own empires amidst the epic rivalries used to differentiate the eras of the game. They would demand their own, unique chapters in the tennis history books.

The illustrious Aussie Rod Laver, for his complete game, would make this elite pack. His contemporary, Roy Emerson for the sheer number of Grand Slams he won during his time would be the second inductee. Pete Sampras would be next for his reign at the top right through the nineties. Of course, Roger Federer, for combining the absolute best aspects of each of these players and his effortless brilliance and natural talent. Rafa is now a worthy member of this club, not only being the undisputed king of clay but for his exploits on all surfaces and conditions and the indefatigable spirit that has immortalized him.

I think Novak has the potential to claim a spot by the time he hangs up his racket. His accomplishments cannot be stated independent of context. Even if ends up short of Sampras’ title haul there is no question (with no disrespect to Pistol Pete) that he has (and will have had) to work much harder to get his titles.

The maturity we saw from him this tournament as he held on and how much this meant to him is, I think, a sign of even greater things to come. He needed to put an end to that Grand Slam losing streak and regain his self-belief. The fact remains that despite them continuing to perform at unreal levels, Federer, and Nadal, are not going to last on the tour as long as Djokovic.

And the argument can certainly be made that the Murrays, Dimitrovs and Wawrinkas will lift their game further to be even more potent challengers. I think Novak will always have a mental edge, like Federer. He is fearless on the big points and knows how to win. To seize opportunities. He seemed to have forgotten for a brief while but I’m confident he is back.

The 2011 tennis season is probably the greatest performance of the Open Era barring Federer’s 2006 run but to really put things in perspective, Federer did not have to contend with the big four besides Rafa (who wasn’t at the same level) then.

I won’t be surprised if we see him play at that level once more. With his newfound maturity (the impact of fatherhood and marriage) and returning to his Grand Slam winning ways, these next few years are going to define how Nole is remembered: a great player or one of the greatest EVER. For he is surely on the threshold of true all-time greatness. No Djokes.

Akash Venkat

Akash Venkat is one of the co-founders of ROSS Intelligence, curious about everything under (and over) the sun. He is also known in some circles as “the one who knocks”. Feel free to get in touch (@akashizzle) if you want to parley!