Djokovic the first among equals as he reaches major landmark

Serbian joins great rivals Federer and Nadal on 20 Grand Slams – and looks poised for further success

 Novak Djokovic kisses the winner’s trophy after beating Italy’s Matteo Berrettini during their men’s singles final at  Wimbledon. Photograph:  Adrian Dennis/AFP

Novak Djokovic kisses the winner’s trophy after beating Italy’s Matteo Berrettini during their men’s singles final at Wimbledon. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP

 

The Big Three now have 20 apiece. It is a development that would have seemed unlikely to Novak Djokovic as he made his way onto the tour in the 2000s with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal racking up Grand Slam singles titles.

Federer was entrenched at number one and had found his groove after an up-and-down start. Nadal, a genuine prodigy, was already all but unbeatable on clay courts in his teens and would soon challenge Federer on every surface.

They were a duopoly, the dominant topic in men’s tennis for good reason. Djokovic was on the outside peering in, but he was also on the outside, gathering information and inspiration.

“They are, I think, the reason I am where I am today,” he said on Sunday after winning the Wimbledon men’s singles title by defeating Matteo Berrettini, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4, 6-3.

“They have helped me to realise what I need to do in order to improve to get stronger mentally, physically, tactically. When I broke into the top 10 for the first time, I lost for three or four years most of the big matches that I played against these two guys and something shifted at the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011. The last 10 years has been an incredible journey that is not stopping here.”

On the court, he caught them long ago, taking the lead in their head-to-head series and also taking them on and out in their fiefdoms. Djokovic is the only man to defeat Federer three times at Wimbledon; the only man to defeat Nadal twice at the French Open.

He, not Federer or Nadal, is the man who has held the number one spot for the most total weeks in the history of the ATP rankings. He is also the only man to win all nine of the Masters 1000 singles titles, something he has managed twice. But it took Djokovic until Sunday to catch up to his two measuring sticks in the race that has come, rightly or wrongly, to define tennis players to the viewing public.

Grand Slam titles are the coin of the realm in professional tennis, and the Big Three are now dead even with 20 each. It is a stunning collective achievement that no one saw coming when Pete Sampras set the former record of 14 by winning his final tournament, the 2002 US Open.

Sampras, who had broken Roy Emerson’s mark of 12, certainly had no inkling of what was to come despite losing to Federer in their only meeting, at Wimbledon in 2001 in the fourth round.

“I’m just amazed at this generation,” Sampras told the New York Times in a recent interview. “If you would have asked when I walked off with 14 majors if three guys would pass me in the next 15 to 19 years, I would have said, ‘No way.’”

There are multiple explanations. Sampras’ record was perhaps, in retrospect, ripe for the taking. Until 1968, when the Grand Slam tournaments became open to professionals, many leading men like Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez and Rod Laver were ineligible to play in them after leaving the amateur ranks.

Even after tennis entered the Open era, top men’s players like Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe often skipped the Australian Open or even the French Open.

Great champions

Sampras was one of the first great champions to commit to playing all four majors every year. And although Sampras was brilliant on faster surfaces, he never even reached the final of the French Open in part because he relied on a serve-and-volley game that paid fewer dividends on red clay.

Advances in recovery and training methods have lengthened careers. So have the large support teams in which leading players now invest. Mental barriers have toppled, too, just as they did after Roger Bannister broke the four-minute-mile barrier. At this stage, older athletes see older athletes succeeding and think why not me?

The added time also allows them more runway to address their weaknesses with more data to cite. Asked what he felt had been his most significant improvement in the past decade, Djokovic answered: “Just the ability to cope with pressure.”

“The more you play the big matches, the more experience you have,” he said. “The more experience you have, the more you believe in yourself. The more you win, the more confident you are. It’s all connected.”

There is, of course, a ceiling. Federer, the most experienced of the Big Three at 39, presumably would not have lost 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-0 in his prime at Wimbledon to a player like the 14th-seeded Hubert Hurkacz, as he did this year.

But Djokovic, 34, is in a different phase. True to his reputation and his learning curve, he did not crack on Sunday with number 20 in reach. He was edgy, however, just as he had been in his victory over another powerful and emerging star, Denis Shapovalov of Canada, in the semi-finals.

When asked how much he was thinking on the court about the statistics at stake, he replied: “History is on the line. I’m aware of it, even though I was trying not to think about it too much, trying to approach this match as any other match.

“Sometimes the things are so big off the court that it’s hard to avoid them in a way. You learn how to deal with them. You learn how to accept the circumstances that you’re going through, try to transmutate, so to say, transform that into the fuel that you need on the court.”

- New York Times

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