When the history of tennis in the ‘10s is told, Novak Djokovic will likely be regarded as the decade’s preeminent player. As 2015 ends, Djokovic’s aura of dominance is supreme, his impregnable qualities giving him the unbeatable aura once held by Bjorn Borg. Like Borg, everything from Djokovic’s movement to his fitness and relentless baseline skills make it extremely difficult for opponents to figure out how they can win points, much less matches. But unlike Borg, visibly world-weary by age 25, Djokovic at 28 is incredibly eager and likely has even better days ahead.
When it comes to his legacy, though, perhaps unfairly, perhaps the result of random chronology, perhaps due to his own manner, Djokovic will be hard-pressed to create the kind of adoration generated by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. If in the long term this might not matter, in the short term it clearly creates that classic tennis conflict between performance and perception.
Start with a comparison of Djokovic’s playing style to those of Federer and Nadal. Federer occupies rare air. In the tradition of such greats as John McEnroe, Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall, his mastery of the craft is so thorough and distinct that it has become art. That Federer is still playing so well at this age only heightens the ecstasy he elicits. Leave it to Federer the month he turned 34 to take a tactic that’s more than 100 years old – the chip-charge return – and inject new life into it, along the way giving the concept a name, SABR (sneak attack by Roger), that a marketing maven would be hard-pressed to create.
Nadal is a swashbuckler, in the pantheon with such pirates as Jimmy Connors, Pancho Gonzalez, Pete Sampras, John Newcombe and Lew Hoad. These are the competitors you’d want playing for the fate of the earth. Time and time again, Nadal has willed himself to victory. Though 2015 marked his first year since 2004 without a Slam title, it’s hard to imagine Nadal going away meekly. As Nadal labors to regain major titles, millions of fans, inspired and engaged by that effort, he will likely be a heavy favorite versus just about anyone save Federer.
Superb & Sustainable Craftsman
But while Federer and Nadal often strike shots that captivate fans who barely know a volley from a rally, Djokovic’s game has little of that jaw-dropping quality. To his credit, Djokovic is brilliantly utilitarian, a superb craftsman. Like Connors, Djokovic was taught the fundamentals by a woman, Jelena Gencic, a teacher who clearly emphasized discipline. Under the eye of an instructor focused on detail and repetition, Djokovic learned that raw power is less effective than the concept of smothering opponents with footwork and sustained depth and pace. The genius of Djokovic’s game comes from its lack of the overtly spectacular – neither the sculpted beauty of Federer, nor the ferocity of Nadal. Like another exquisite baseliner, Chris Evert, such Djokovic assets as footwork, balance and sustainability are more discernible to connoisseurs than dabblers. While Federer paints masterpieces and Nadal splashes murals, Djokovic is akin to a Scandinavian furniture company that quietly builds superbly designed, understated pieces that occupy living rooms for decades.
Learning From Lendl
In many senses, Djokovic’s historical ancestor is Ivan Lendl. Like Djokovic, Lendl reached the pinnacle in the shadow of charisma: Borg, McEnroe, Connors. Like Djokovic, Lendl took preparation to a new level in such areas as fitness, training and nutrition. Like Djokovic, Lendl’s playing style was heavily based less on scintillating shot-making (Federer, McEnroe) or over-the-top tenacity (Nadal, Connors) and more on sustained attrition (Borg, but without the teen angel-rock star qualities). Also like Lendl, in the early part of his career, Djokovic’s potential popularity was blunted by his fragile physical and mental state. Yes, he could play, reaching the top three as early as 2007. But not until 2011 did Djokovic emerge as a first-rate, fully fit competitor.
It’s also been tricky to watch Djokovic publicly conduct himself. Were his impersonations of other players endearing or cheeky? What to make of his over-the-top parents, from the mother who called him “the child of God” to her saying “the king is dead” after he beat Federer at the 2008 Australian Open to his father castigating Federer and Nadal? How gracious is it to tear off one’s shirt, be it during a frustrating part of the match or even in victory?
Then there is the matter of Djokovic’s connection to his homeland. Without turning this into a story about Eastern Europe and the Balkans, let’s just say that politics in Serbia and neighboring regions is quite complicated. This too affects how one brings Djokovic close to the heart the way Federer, a man from a neutral, seemingly cosmopolitan country, and Nadal, raised in the vacation spot of Mallorca, have become tennis family intimates. Lendl too, up against American icons during an exceptionally jingoistic stage of the Cold War, faced similar problems as an East European.
The Racquet Will Speak Loudly
Djokovic, though, will likely generate enough results to transcend contemporary marketplace matters. What separates sports from the arts is the purity and enduring significance of performance over popularity. A preference for Simon and Garfunkel over the Rolling Stones, or Meryl Streep over Katharine Hepburn, can dramatically effect how we see an artist’s role in history.
But the clarity of the results generated by athletes – particularly in individual sports – is exceptionally vivid. Of course Djokovic wants to be loved. Who doesn’t? Even Connors, who for a good long stretch of his career claimed he thrived on being the bad guy, in time saw that having thousands in his corner was beneficial. Lendl likely didn’t care if he was loved or hated. But more than any Connors or McEnroe admirer dares wish to ponder, the long view of history reveals that Lendl’s resume is darn impressive and pretty much right in sync with each of his two left-handed rivals (and it’s also significantly superior to another highly popular player, Andre Agassi). Whether fans want to admit this or not, it’s wise to base at least 51 percent of the evaluation on what happens inside the lines. Memo to Novak: Keep up the great work and the public love will be what it’s meant to be.