Tennis doesn’t do grand farewells, with trumpets blazing to announce the conclusion of one era and the beginning of another; change is usually more dignified, with measured, almost imperceptible abdications allowing space for the next princeling.
However, it might be time we started to wonder aloud about a seismic development that has been rumbling for a while, one that deserves at least a small brass band: is Novak Djokovic about to become the greatest player of all time?
His peers are not rushing to that judgment, given their competitive instincts have not dulled to the point of surrender, but they have all at least conceded that these are his peak years, and it would be a brave expert who predicted when they might end, or how. In Melbourne, Andy Murray unequivocally said the only way someone other than Djokovic was going to win the Australian Open was if the Serb’s game dipped. It did not – at least not when it mattered. Rafael Nadal, once a king himself, echoed those thoughts. Roger Federer, whose grip on the crown was loosened a while ago now, acknowledged as much, as well he might at 34.
Since Djokovic defeated Murray convincingly to win the first major of 2016, the speculation on the men’s Tour has again turned to his chances of doing the calendar grand slam, having fallen one short last summer in Paris – just as Serena Williams did at Flushing Meadows. These are hard won, the game’s golden prizes.
If Djokovic were to win the remaining three grand slam tournaments of 2016, he would move alongside Nadal’s 14, and take a bead on the ultimate prize: Federer’s 17. If the most optimistic predictions were to continue to fall into place, Djokovic would complete his task at Wimbledon next year, king of all he surveys.
That would presuppose that Nadal’s gentle decline is beyond repair and he cannot stop the blood running in Paris, or that Federer fails to find one last surge on the grass of Wimbledon – or that Murray’s avowed intent to target Roland Garros also again falls short, as it did with some magnificence in a fighting semi-final against Djokovic last year.
It is highly improbable that Djokovic can put together this miracle sequence, as it would demand the most consistent run of excellent winning performances in big tournaments the game has seen – he is already on a roll of three successive slams – and, in an era of unprecedented demands on legs, lungs and mind, a player who red-lines as much as Djokovic at the very edge of his capacity would be vulnerable – mentally as much as physically.
Nevertheless, the Sky Sports analyst Barry Cowan, who knows his way around a tennis court, says: “It’s astonishing what Novak is able to do on all surfaces. He’s head and shoulders above the rest.”
And Cowan poses the enduring conundrum: “For every win he has over the next five or six weeks, every press conference will have the question, ‘Can you cope with the pressure of the French Open?’”
He has not managed it yet in a final. Another former player who thinks he might never do so is Robin Soderling, who became the first player to beat Nadal at Roland Garros, in 2009, but still could not stop Federer lifting his only Coupe des Mousquetaires in the final. How Djokovic would love to do that, just once. It is his abiding obsession, like Rory McIlroy’s pursuit of the Masters to complete his sport’s career slam.
Soderling, beaten into retirement by glandular fever, for the past two years earned a living as the tournament director of the Stockholm Open, before turning to tennis equipment under his own RS brand, and commentating on Betsafe – and he does not think Djokovic is worth gambling on in Paris. “The way Novak played last year and the way he started this year, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody playing that kind of tennis before,” Soderling says. “It was outstanding. [But] I think it is easier to beat Novak on clay than on any other surfaces. Of course, he will be the favourite.
“If you’re going to beat him right now, it is going to be on clay. He’s not a natural clay-court player. He doesn’t move as well on clay as he does on a hard court. I think when Rafael steps on clay, his confidence rises and he performs really well. In Monte Carlo he won eight straight times. I think he is really hungry for revenge against Novak this year.”
Djokovic might be vulnerable in occasional matches – such as against Gilles Simon in Melbourne, when 100 unforced errors over five erratic sets nearly led to his exit. But the world No1 has another gear, one that invariably takes him away from the field when it matters.
Djokovic’s road to Paris begins this week in Monte Carlo, where he lives. This is where he broke the spell Nadal held over the tournament for eight years, and he is well placed to take his number of Masters trophies to 29, more than anyone else, currently or ever. For the first time here in six years, he will line up against all the other members of the old gang of four: Federer, Nadal and Murray, none of whom is in sparkling form. It seems Djokovic is the only one arriving back on the Riviera without a care in the world.
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