Novak Djokovic has reached the stage of his career where he is constantly writing major chapters in the tennis history book. Djokovic’s run to the 2015 US Open title put him into rare air: a 10th major, Djokovic now tied with Bill Tilden on the all-time list, trailing only the likes of Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Pete Sampras, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
Here in Melbourne he’s in pursuit of another mark. Having earned five Australian Open singles titles, should Djokovic win his sixth, he’ll tie Emerson for the most men’s singles wins all-time at this event.
It’s fitting indeed that these two might well hold that record, for they share much. Certainly there are differences between Djokovic’s era and Emerson’s. Never mind that Emerson’s wins were all earned prior to the Open era, or that there was no prize money back then, or that the tournament was played on grass, with players clad in all white as they wielded wood racquets and came to net just about every time they served. Oh, and let’s not forget matters of nutrition, wherein steak was on the menu, water was off it and terms like “gluten-free” and “organic” were as far off the radar as designer sneakers and backwards hats.
But consider all of the above mere details. In the big picture, Djokovic and Emerson occupy significant common ground. Like Djokovic, Emerson was dedicated beyond belief, leaving no stone unturned in his pursuit of excellence. “I wasn’t as talented as guys like Hoad and Laver,” said Emerson, “so I knew I had to work hard – really hard.” Emerson’s fitness became legendary, his daily sessions often including a run of a few miles, hours of two-on-one drills, followed by a practice match lasting six sets. “Why not practice for one set longer than you’re going to play?” asked the man informally known all the around the world as “Emmo.” Why not indeed?
When it comes to matters of playing style, it’s tempting to view Emerson’s serve-volley game as a complete 180 from Djokovic’s steady baseline game. But again, at heart, each of these two greats plays a grinding kind of tennis. In the same way that Djokovic’s style smothers opponents into errors, so was the case with Emerson’s relentless net attack.
It’s not so easy to start off the year with a Grand Slam event. Think of it like having an NBA playoff series in November. But Djokovic and Emerson show that fortune favors those who put in hours and hours of hard yards – and when the bell rings, these two are able to do precisely what it takes to win Down Under: hop right into battle.