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500 Words on Novak Djokovic

So, I’ve got another one of those silly ideas — how about every now and again I just write 500 words on something? This obviously goes against the general theme of this curiously long posts blog, but what I’m finding more and more is that I start writing something and then, for various reasons, never quite finish. I have more unfinished blog posts from the last few months than at any other point. Most of them are terrible, but a few probably would have been at lat mildly entertaining. Mostly I did not finish because of time, the hectic nature of life these days, but still: I might need to reel in my ambition.

Anyway, no idea if this is something that will stick but anyway — here are 500 words on Novak Djokovic:

* * *

“Some roles were mean. Others were meaner.”
— James Cagney

Novak Djokovic never gets a new part. You can imagine him showing up at every tournament, looking at the draw and saying, “OK, what kind of bad guy do you have me playing this time?” One time, he plays the villain trying to foil Andy Murray on Centre Court as all of Britain prays. The next, he is cast as the grim reaper charged with ending the reign of Rafael Nadal on the red clay of Paris. Then, his recurring role, he plays a lonely man who keeps denying a perpetually rejuvenated Roger Federer from winning his eighth Wimbledon. The script changes slightly. The movie never does.

It didn’t have to be this way. Novak Djokovic has been the best player in the world for years now. He has a hero’s story, rising from the ruins of war-torn Serbia and rising again from the erratic nature of his youth; there has never been a more unlikely tennis virtuoso. He is, by all accounts, a likable soul, modest and funny and emotional. He could play the leading man. He just can’t get the part.

Instead, he continuously plays the disruptor, the killjoy, the anticlimax. Sunday in London, Djokovic once again found himself more or less alone facing the unbearable lightness of Roger Federer and the crowd that adored him. Federer was there for just one more day in the sun. Djokovic was there to terminate dreams.

The two men played two consummate and intoxicating sets. Federer’s serve clashed with Djokovic’s reflexes. Djokovic’s relentless force accentuated Federer’s feathery movement. They drove each other higher and higher until each point felt overwhelming — Federer would win a gut-wrenching point and you would think, “Djokovic can never recover from that,” and then Djokovic would win some crazy corner-to-corner rally and you would think, “Well, that finishes Roger,” and on it went. Djokovic bludgeoned Federer in a first-set tiebreaker. Federer beat Djokovic in the second-set tiebreaker after fighting off six set points. It was wonderful and exhausting and so good that you didn’t want it to end.

And then, like that, it was over. Federer’s level fell off a touch, Djokovic’s level jumped to the sun, and Djokovic was eating grass as Wimbledon champion again. Djokovic, like always, had given his heart out there. The response from the crowd was of respectful disappointment, a feeling Djokovic has grown used to over the years.

To me, though, the most telling response to the match was that of Federer, who has had his share of painful losses through the years. This was not one of them. He knew that he had played well. But Djokovic’s brilliant return of serve, his ability to chase down every ball and his almost flawless play from the baseline reigned. “Some matches tend to be easier to digest,” Federer said. In the end, crowd took the loss hard, but Federer did not. He understood. When Novak Djokovic plays like that, he’s unbeatable.

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20 Responses to 500 Words on Novak Djokovic

  1. Perfectly fine blog, Joe. Nice little blog. Just one question: where’s the rest? I understand your reasoning for 500 words, but, really, to a virtuoso like you, what’s another 500 words? Yes, indeed, 1,000 words fits you (and us) much better.

    • Spencer says:

      Did you read the intro?

      He wants to keep it short and publish it rather than making it longer and potentially not finishing it.

      Any joe is good joe. Keep ’em coming Joe!

  2. It really was a good match. Much closer than the score indicates. But, you are right. Federer started missing a few first serves, and a few shots here and there. This led to the couple of breaks that were all Djokovic needed. At one point late in the match, they had won an identical number of points. It could easily have gone the other way. I’m not sure how much Federer has left, but he pretty much would have beaten anyone but Djokovic the way he played. He wiped out Murray with similar stuff. Nadal, I think, is finished. So, Federer will get another shot at Djokovic, probably at the US Open.

    • Spencer Steel says:

      They played two tiebreakers. The match at that point was even on the scoreboard and both men had played equally brilliantly. Then Djokovic found a gear that Federer once – but no longer – possessed and that was that. I appreciate Roger’s late-career better than his peak because, while lots of players have dominated at various times through the open era, no “old” player has ever played as well as Federer. He’s still the world’s second-best – by a pretty fair amount right now. In a different time he’d be doing the unthinkable; winning many majors as he moves into his mid-30s. Instead – as Joe points out – Novak is tennis’s Anton Chigurh. If you see him on the other side of the net . . . it’s already too late.

      • MikeN says:

        Agassi after turning 29 made four straight grand slam finals, winning 3. then followed up with two more wins at age 30 and 32, and also 2 finals at the US Open at age 32 and 35.
        Federer has not yet turned 34.

        • Spencer Steel says:

          There’s no question Agassi was a fantastic “older” player, but go back and look at men’s tennis in the 1999-2003 period where his resurgence came. It’s hard not to attribute a lot of his late-career success to what was likely the weakest competitive period since the open era began. I don’t know that Agassi is a good comp here. Federer – to my mind – is a far superior player at ~34 than Andre was, but where Agassi had to beat Arnaud Clement and Rainer Schuttler for his titles, Roger keeps drawing Novak Djokovic.

          • MikeN says:

            I’m not so sure about that. He is playing incredibly, but Agassi even in 2005 at age 35 did well against a 24 year old Federer, winning one set and losing the third in a tiebreak. That Agassi was winning the Australian Open heat is even more impressive than winning fast Wimbledon matches.

  3. Marco says:

    A couple of comments in no particular order:

    – I remain convinced Nadal is hurt. Yes, he has a lot of miles on his body, and yes, his style of play is not conducive to longevity, but great tennis players seldom just drop off a cliff like this without an underlying reason. That we’re not seeing the typical gradual slide makes me think there’s more going on.

    – I’m seeing a lot of internet chatter about the chances of Djokovic catching the major count of Nadal and/or Federer. Most of the things I’ve seen peg the odds at likely or better that Djokovic will catch Nadal. I’m strongly reminded of Joe’s old posts on Tiger catching Jack. Sure, Djokovic looks great now, but he needs 5 to catch Nadal (assuming Nadal is done, which I’m not yet ready to say). Five majors is an incredible career, and not easy to do.

    – I could be fooling myself, but it really does seem to me like Djokovic needs to be down and have his back against the wall to play his best. As great as he is, he lets people back into matches all the time.

    • Spencer Steel says:

      If you look at the careers of past tennis greats, their slides don’t tend to be linear. Players go from winning everything to not winning anything. Nadal has fallen victim to the exact thing that he used so effectively to vanquish opponents: attrition. Maybe he’ll find something and get back to the top, but for every Federer who continues to play well late, there are a hundred guys who are retired at thirty.

  4. jscape2000 says:

    What an era of men’s tennis this is.

    Stan Wawrinka (2), Andy Murray (2), Marin Cilic (1), Juan Martin de Potro (1), Marat Safin (1), Gaston Gaudio (1), and Andy Roddick (1) are the only Grand Slam winners since Federer won his first in 2003.

    Think about it- in that span, the field won 9 events while Federer won 17, Nadal won 14, and Djokovic won 9. This is what we were wishing for in golf all those years while Tiger stood alone over the field. I know I’m not telling anyone anything new, I just find it jaw dropping. The only more numbing run I can think of is the NBA (Celtics from basically 57-69, or the Lakers and Celtics of the ’80s.

    And with four opportunities to pick up a new Grand Slam trophy each year, betting against Djokovic to catch Nadal feels premature. Then again, unless Murray or Wawrinka take that next step forward to challenge Djokovic, he figures to have a much more productive 30s than Federer has had (1 title) so even the old man might not be safe without padding his record a little further.

  5. Djokovic has 9 and getting another 9 to break the record is a tall order heading into his 30s. Sure, he may be more productive than Federer in his 30s, but can he keep chasing down balls and playing prolonged points better than the young guys as he ages? He has been the top guy for a number of years now, but even as the number 1, this is only the second time in his career that he has won more than one slam in a year. I won’t be surprised if he takes 3 of 4 this year and maybe even be the first non-Nadal favourite for the French in a decade, but he’s got to win a career slam and win a couple more Wimbledons and US Opens before he is seen in higher regard than Nadal. Besides the Slam wins, the biggest thing that stands out for me about Federer is his prolonged time at No. 1. He defended and stayed in the top seed for years, when everyone was gunning for him. Even when he fell out of the top seed he fought his way back again late in his career. He stayed there for more consecutive weeks than Djokovic has held onto it so far.

    • Spencer Steel says:

      Djokovic was significantly favored over Nadal to win the 2015 French. Something along the order of +155 versus +200. EVERYTHING else you wrote is spot-on. While Djokovic doesn’t quite play Nadal’s bruising style, it’s hardly the effortless gliding of Federer. Nine more majors is an enormous ask. Dominant as Novak is, five more is a ton. He’ll be thirty by the 2017 French, which means he’ll only have six more bites at the apple prior to that. Even the all-time greats rarely win majors in their thirties.

  6. wordyduke says:

    At the end, didn’t Federer say “Some LOSSES are easier to digest.”? The video extant of Djokovic going to visit his old (female) first tennis instructor speaks to his likability, as do his routines imitating (in a nice way) his fellow tennis greats.

  7. Marc Schneider says:

    I think Djokovic will become a favorite once Federer (and maybe Nadal) departs. Everyone loves Federer (deservedly so) and Murray is a hometown favorite in England. Jack Nicholas was once the villain to Arnold Palmer.

    • Spencer Steel says:

      They’ll like Djokovic once he isn’t as good a player anymore. I mean, there was a huge throng of people rooting for Colin Montgomerie to win the 2006 US Open after he’d spent his whole career being mercilessly booed in the States.

  8. MikeN says:

    Not getting the roles? He’s failing the auditions!
    He loses to Wawrinka in the French final.
    He’s been coming up short time and time again.

    Still catching Nadal is doable for him. If he wins the US Open, and 2 more next year he is at 12.
    If he can win 3 each the next two years he is at 16.

    • Spencer Steel says:

      If by “failing the auditions” you mean losing in the finals to Federer (2007), Nadal (2010), Nadal (2012), Murray (2012), Murray (2013), Nadal (2013), Nadal (2014), and Wawrinka (2015), then you’re a tough grader. The weakest name on that list has won multiple majors. The second-weakest has appeared in eight grand-slam finals. The other two are the two best players in the history of the open era. Your scenario by which Djokovic catches Nadal or gets to 16 seems reasonable enough, but time is a thief and what look like reasonable assumptions at the moment could look awfully silly eight months from now. On the other hand, the guy could win 22 and it wouldn’t be shocking. It’s just so hard to predict what the future will look like in tennis.

      • MikeN says:

        Yes that’s what I mean. And the weakest guys are multiple grand-slam winners because Djokovic didn’t win. It is Joe who said Djokovic is relegated to being the villain, it’s because his wins have coincided with the villain storylines, though I suspect Joe has left out some normal wins. Beating Murray would have been villainous I guess. Breaking through and beating the other guys more would be nice. Nadal did it when no one was expecting it. Djokovic had the one impressive year, then slid back to coequal status.

  9. Iggy says:

    Wasn’t there a rain interruption? And the younger guy came back onto the court fresher? Or would mentioning that have taken more than 500 words?

  10. Marc Schneider says:

    I don’t quite understand the need to denigrate Djokovic’s career. Ultimately, what difference does it make if Djokovic is better than Federer and Nadal or not? He clearly is one of the best players ever. Yes, he has lost a lot of Grand Slam finals. But he has also won a lot. It’s like asking, who was better, Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle. Maybe one is better than the other (probably Mays) but does that invalidate the other? I think we need to appreciate players for what they are rather than for what they are not. Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic are all great players. Murray is a very good player, but a step behind the others. But, geez, complaining that Djokovic lost to Wawrinka? That’s supposed to be an indictment? This is a tough crowd. I understand Tom Brady lost a couple of Super Bowls.

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