In the fall of 2010, it seemed Novak Djokovic was a victim of poor timing, coming around at the same time as two all-time greats. But then he turned himself into an all-time great. On Sunday, he took out Andy Murray for his third straight Australian Open title. He has won five of the last nine slams.
He had already made one dramatic leap in his career, and you don't necessarily get a second. He had spent the better part of a year inching up in the rankings, from the 80s, to the 70s, to the 60s. But a run to the quarterfinals of the 2006 French Open, right around his 19th birthday, had bumped him from 63rd to 40th. He made the fourth round at Wimbledon and was 24th at the end of July. By the beginning of 2007 he was 16th. And at the end of 2007, he was third. He was precocious, fast, accurate and tenacious. But he wasn't Rafael Nadal, and he wasn't Roger Federer. He ceded the No. 3 ranking to Andy Murray for much of 2009, and he creeped to No. 2 when Nadal was injured in early 2010. But the rankings typically agreed with the eyeballs: Novak Djokovic was the third-best tennis player in the world.
My line for Andy Roddick was really the same for Djokovic: He came around at the wrong time. If he had peaked in the late-1990s or early-2000s, before Federer found fifth gear in 2004, he could have managed more than one slam title (the 2008 Australian Open); but there is often tragedy in timing, and clearly Djokovic was going to go down in the books as a great player who had the misfortune of playing with two all-time greats.
He seemed almost resigned to that in his quotes following the 2010 U.S. Open.
Though Sunday's rain had given Djokovic an extra day's rest and recuperation from his exertions of Saturday against Federer, he was still going to be tired.
And when you are weary, the worst possible opponent is Nadal, as you know that he is going to make you play fetch behind the baseline, and that you are going to be scrambling behind the baseline with burning lungs and legs. In the opening stages, Djokovic was moving around the court with all the speed and agility of someone wearing diving boots, and he was breathing hard.
Djokovic competed like a mad dog and nearly sneaked back in as Nadal served for it at 5-4, but fittingly it was the Spanish serve, such an improved part of his armoury, that got him safely to 2-1 up. By the end of the third set the world number one had taken only four of 21 break points, while his opponent was running at 3-3.
The victor collapsed to the floor in a heap of black and Djokovic came round the net to acknowledge him with an embrace. He had been beaten by an extraordinary athlete, currently the world's best tennis player by a very considerable margin.
"He has the capabilities already now to become the best player ever," said Djokovic, who lost the 2007 U.S. Open final to Federer, but upset him in Saturday's semifinals. "I think [Nadal is] playing the best tennis that I've ever seen him play on hard courts. He has improved his serve drastically -- the speed, the accuracy. And, of course, his baseline [game] is as good as ever."
"Nadal ... is just proving each day, each year, that he's getting better. That's what's so frustrating, a little bit. He's getting better each time you play him," Djokovic said. "He's so mentally strong and dedicated to this sport. He has all the capabilities, everything he needs, in order to be the biggest ever."
If Rafael Nadal was perfectly built to beat Roger Federer, how could one go about consistently beating Nadal? Was it even possible? To surpass Nadal, one would need Djokovic's defense and return of serve combined with a marathoner's fitness and Gumby's flexibility. If it wasn't going to be Djokovic, who would it be?
It was Djokovic, of course. His physical transformation in the winter of 2010 also transformed the sport of tennis. He changed the way he thought about fitness and challenged everybody else to do the same, and he has now won five of the nine slams since the start of 2011. He is a four-time Australian Open winner, which makes sense, really; there might not be a bigger physical challenge on the tour than winning seven best-of-five matches in 14 days in a Melbourne summer, with hundred-degree days and sixty-degree nights.
That Djokovic won only one of four slams in 2012 tells you all you need to know about the state of men's tennis -- again, it's just so damn good -- but make no mistake: He is the king right now, mostly because he is absurdly consistent. He plays as physically as Nadal, but Nadal cannot stay healthy. He forces Federer to play as aggressively as possible to break through his defense, and while Fed can still take him down, Djokovic has still won seven of the last 10 between the two. He defends as well as Andy Murray, but as he showed on Sunday in a 6-7, 7-6, 6-3, 6-2 win, he is still just a bit more resourceful. Murray has closed the gap dramatically (as evidenced in the 2012 Olympic semifinals and U.S. Open finals, both Murray wins), but Djokovic still holds the overall edge.
Step one: Realize you're not quite great enough. Step two: Make yourself greater. It sounds like the shortest self-help book ever, but it is ridiculously hard to follow this path. Djokovic did so two years ago, and he has forced tennis's other big names to follow suit. Murray has accepted the challenge, Federer has still had his moments (he did spend much of Fall 2012 ranked No. 1, after all), and Nadal will probably* look just fine in this coming clay-court season. He still gives the rest of tennis the chance to catch him occasionally -- Stanislas Wawrinka all but took him down in the fourth round -- but to beat Djokovic, one has to play nearly flawless offensive tennis and be prepared to stay on the court for five hours. Guys can do that, but not very often. He has turned himself into the ultimate tennis specimen. If Nadal was built to beat Federer and Djokovic was built to beat Nadal, it will be interesting to see the game that is able to consistently beat Djokovic.
* Probably. It's not a guarantee.
Three other thoughts from the 2013 Australian Open:
1. Styles make fights. We saw a lot of build-up for not only the final, but for the Djokovic-Murray rivalry. It's the "new Federer-Nadal," apparently. No, it's not. The greatest rivalries are not only tight and competitive but also artistic and dramatic. With Federer and Nadal, you never know what angle will be produced; the pure shot-making talent of those two might never be matched. But if Federer-Nadal is like an old-school prizefight, Djokovic-Murray is like watching a CrossFit competition. You're amazed at the drama, and you don't know who's going to win, but it's more grueling than gripping. For a college football example, Djokovic-Murray is more Alabama-LSU than Alabama-Texas A&M. It's great, but when the defenses and serves are rolling like they were for much of the first three sets on Sunday, you kind of want to fast forward to the good parts. With Federer-Nadal, every part is a good part.
2. I wish Nicolas Almagro had followed the Djokovic fitness plan this offseason. Almagro really intrigues me. The 27-year old from Spain has probably already missed his opportunity to make a true breakthrough into tennis's top tier -- he has never ranked higher than ninth, and again, he's already 27 -- but technically a late-career surge, a la David Ferrer, is still conceivable. Almagro has all the offense you could possibly want, but his defense is only decent, and as he proved in his five-set loss to Ferrer in the quarterfinals, while his fitness level is just fine (all top tennis players' fitness levels are pretty ridiculous), it isn't that of Ferrer or Djokovic. He has perhaps as much upside as anybody ranked in the 9th-20th range, but he has probably hit his ceiling.
3. Do we really have to wait four months for the French Open? Can we bump it up to, like, mid-February?