Is Novak Djokovic Playing at the Highest Level in History?

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Novak Djokovic, the undisputed king of the Australian Open, is one step closer to becoming the most successful player in tennis history.

Dehydrated, sluggish and down two sets to one, Djokovic still found a way to outlast an inspired Dominic Thiem and win his 8th Australian Open final in eight tries, an incredible achievement.

It’s even more impressive when you consider that, instead of resting or practicing, he played the ATP cup in early January and won it for Serbia.

With 17 slams, Djokovic is only two behind Rafa Nadal and three behind Roger Federer. If he continues to snatch victories from defeat, he could catch up to Rafa and Roger within the next 12 months. It’s a thrilling scenario for tennis fans: Rafa ties Roger by winning number 20 at the French Open in Paris this spring, and then Djokovic wins Wimbledon and the US Open, giving him 19 going into Melbourne in 2021.

Barring injury, Djokovic should be the favorite going into events in coming years. He’s winning slams without placing his best tennis. He was outplayed by Federer at Wimbledon 2019. He was outslugged by Thiem for most of the match other than key points in the final two sets. Yet Nole keeps winning.

On the other hand, some might wonder if Djoker’s level is actually dropping. 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.

A few years ago, I asked Federer in Ohio what he admired most about 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 in 2019 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.

He has continued to work on his game since then. Novak somehow finds a way to improve his game and dismantle the power of his rivals. Remember when Novak was a weak server, uncomfortable at the net? He won key points against Thiem in Melbourne 2020 by serving and volleying. On the biggest point of the match, 4-3 and 30-all in the fifth set, Djokovic surprised Thiem with a slicing second serve out wide.

If he keeps improving, Novak might even tie or overtake Federer and Nadal sooner than expected. Beating Rafa at Roland Garros, which Federer has never done, would bolster Novak’s case as the greatest of all time. Equaling them with 20 slams each would also strengthen his case, since Novak owns better records head-to-head.

Winning the Grand Slam — all four slams in 2020 — would basically cement that argument. And if Djokovic can overtake Federer and win 21 slams, then there should be no doubt that he is the most successful male player in tennis history.

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

 

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