Is Novak Djokovic Playing at the Highest Level in History?


Novak Djokovic’s two-hour trouncing of Rafael Nadal at the 2019 Australian Open final, even if it was only a third as long as his 2012 triumph, was one of the greatest performances of all time.

Djokovic hit 34 winners to nine unforced errors and demolished Rafa’s forehand, backhand and serve. Teeing off seemingly at will, Novak pushed 28 errors out of Rafa’s forehand in the final. Novak lost only one point on his serve in the first set, and never let Rafa into the match.

“Under the circumstances, it was truly the perfect match,” Djokovic said. Rafa called it “the highest level possible.”

It was indeed tennis at the highest level, ranking alongside Novak’s destructions of Roger Federer in London and Melbourne, Rafa’s lopsided victories at Roland Garros, and Federer’s own magic on tour.

When I asked Federer in Ohio what he admired most about Novak Djokovic, he said it was Novak’s transition from defense to offense.

Rafa Nadal, after losing a final in straight sets for the first time, told media in Melbourne that he hit good shots, only to find himself back on the defensive.

Case in point: Novak’s insane inside-out return winner of Rafa’s body serve kicking at his head. Rafa reacted like he’d just seen an alien walking on three legs.

Coming into the final, Rafa had the same problem as Petra Kvitova in the women’s final. He was relatively untested from a lack of challenges in earlier rounds. It’s like going from swimming in a pool to the open ocean in a storm. Djokovic, meanwhile, could thank Denis Shapovalov and Daniil Medvedev for pushing him to a higher level than Rafa had to play.

Trying to shorten rallies, Rafa started out playing too close to the baseline, throwing off his timing and rhythm. Novak drilled hard flat balls at him, denying Rafa his normal backswing and ability to “climb the ladder” and move forward into attacking positions.

Late to the ball, Rafa only won one point on Novak’s serve in the first set. Trying to get Novak out of the zone in the second set, Rafa altered his positioning to play deeper behind the baseline, as he does on clay. But this also threw off his timing and range, and Novak exploited the opened angles. Rafa couldn’t even win the drop-shot and mini-tennis battles with Novak. Nothing could knock Novak from his superior level, perhaps the highest ever in the game.

If he keeps playing like this, Novak could be the favorite going into Roland Garros, depending on what happens on clay in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Rome. He’ll be trying to win his second French Open and complete his second calendar slam.  Beating Rafa at Roland Garros, which Federer has never done, would strengthen Novak’s case as the greatest of all time.

Winning the Grand Slam — all four slams in 2019 — would basically cement that argument.

(words and images copyright Christopher Johnson Globalite Media all rights reserved)