Novak Djokovic’s Never-Ending Quest For Perpetuity
Here we are, yet another Roland Garros beckons tennis fans across the world and yet another final presents another shot for Novak Djokovic at that one title that keeps him away from making a legitimate case for his role as one of the greatest athlete’s in the sport’s history.
Perhaps, his unfaltering endeavor to win the French Open title has reinforced the thought that in the recent past, distinctly in the past decade, winning the Roland Garros title even once has seemingly taken a higher precedence over winning multiple Wimbledon titles in the To-do lists of the best in this era. It was the case with Roger Federer, who would have been relegated to a Sampras-like-fate hadn’t he won the tournament in 2009. It still continues to be the case for Novak. If winning the Wimbledon were their childhood dreams, the French open title has grown to become their manhood craving.
The endless craving of one man who seems to travel back to the first stage of psycho-sexual development every time he wins the Coupe des Mousquetaires was once the reason for an almost incomplete resume for Roger and the giant hole that still lurks in Novak’s. Picturing the very familiar image of Nadal sinking his teeth into the French trophy, makes us think that even a single title on the Parisian clay would be a supreme accomplishment for any player of this era, for the foreman of the European clay courts has been simply unbeatable on the surface over an entire decade.
On the other side, which is everything else besides the French open, Novak has made it extremely difficult for anyone to lay their hands on a Grand slam title for sometime now. He has been writing his part of the script too well. The past 22 majors starting with the 2010 US Open has seen Novak appearing in 17 finals, winning 10 of them. He is at the midst of a revolutionary era in the Men’s game. When he walks on to the court these days, he introduces his invincibility as a part of him. He suffocates the breath out of his opponents, wrecking their naïvely laid-out pre-match strategies and hopes altogether. He makes survival perfectly difficult inside almost every major rectangle across the globe.
Novak’s phenomenal rise has been the central thread in Tennis’s popular conversations for the past 5 years. At the end of 2015 he had neatly leveled his head-to-head record against his greatest rivals, Federer and Nadal. During this year’s Miami win, he even eclipsed Federer’s once-insurmountable career earnings figure, courtesy of a huge surge in prize money granted across the circuit in recent times. Hell, he even became the first 100 Million-man in Tennis with his win over Batista Agut in the 4th round in Paris. Every accomplishment that he takes responsibility for invites talks about greatness and the Federers and Nadals are sewn right into that fabric already. He has always tried to separate himself from this entwined history he shares with them and be a part of that chosen few who have defined the Tennis eras of their times all by themselves. Starting with Laver , the greats like Borg, Lendl, Sampras, Agassi and most recently Federer and Nadal, had perfected the art of shaping the game in their own ways. It is part of an existential question purely in tennis terms which hovers around every aspiring champion’s mind.
As Geoff Dyer put it after the epic marathon that was tennis, between John Isner and Nicholas Mahut at the 2010 Wimbledon, “Tennis is very much an existential drama.
It’s true. Every ball fetched and hit is a battle to keep “non-existence at bay”. He says “sudden death and perpetual extension are inextricably paired”. Every athlete tries to achieve perpetuity with every knock-out fled, every offense circumvented and every title won.
Around the same time that year, Novak himself was struggling to thrive among the best for many reasons. He was good but not good enough, until that epoch-making dietary solution changed it all.
Thousands have played this sport. From a pool of 128 players who appear at a slam, 4 times a season, throughout the years, only a handful of players come to our minds when we talk about greatness. With every generation, the standards of achievement and the intensity in the way the sport is played has gone up. The Fedal rivalry defined the start of the millennium and now Novak certainly holds the honor of capturing the zeitgeist of the 2010’s. Modern Tennis is now what he has grown to be. His game defines the very nature of the sport today – extreme physicality, quick recovery, machine-like precision on every shot, equal emphasis on offense and defense, more on defense if you could say that and enduring consistency all around the year, across surfaces and against the greatest competition the game has seen.
The competition continues to fail against him because it appears like they are trying to defeat him at a sport of his own making. He dominates every aspect of the game from title-counts and win-percentages to head-to-head stats and career earnings, and has finally emerged from the all-encompassing Fedal domination on the sport.
Sadly though, even for an athlete of his stature, the serious deficiency on the fan-front is a worrying factor. No matter whom he plays against, somehow the crowd appears to be rooting for his opponent, which becomes even more pronounced when it is Federer or Nadal across the net, the de facto crowd favorites all around the globe. The 2015 US Open final against Roger was hostility at its worst for Novak. The New York Times termed him the Unloved Champion after his victory. His PR problems continue to haunt him everywhere he goes, even to Australian Open, a tournament he had won 5 times before this year’s tournament where his name was misspelled on the banner at kid’s day celebrations and his tribute to Lleyton Hewitt failed to find its way to the final video that was aired on his retirement. Even being a polyglot with a good command over French, German and Italian hasn’t won him a whole lot of fans in Europe like Roger, a polyglot himself has managed to. With Federer, things seem to fall in place in the same fluid manner as his game itself. With Novak, its a struggle for survival everywhere. Its destined.
In recent times, he has been trying to appeal to the younger generation as he seems to have reached a logical certainty that his world is split into two, the Federer and Nadal lovers and it would be much easier to find a niche in the hearts of the younger ones. You could see him jog with the children at the tournaments, signing autographs for lovesick teenagers, bringing out kids to hit with him at practice and exhibitions. Once, he even invited a nine-year old girl to sing at one of his press conferences. It is as if he is culturing his own fan base right under the nose of their possibly prejudiced parents.
Sunday’s final will be against a familiar foe in Andy Murray. Born only a week apart, the two men hold the top slots in the Men’s game by virtue of their different aptitudes and attitude — Djokovic by sheer discipline and the consequential dominance over everything and Murray by pure brilliance and consistency, his skills coming only as a subset of Djokovic’s. The two men will be fighting for their maiden Roland Garros title, a yet to be carved spot in history and perpetuity.
Whether or not Djokovic wins this one is immaterial to the respect he will receive for what he continues to do for the sport. He may perhaps see a late swell in the love and appreciation received, if not now, in his twilight years or after he is done making history. For all the seeds that he sows now, they might recall his greatness when he is done touring the circuit, or perhaps the few fortunate among them might muse about the opportunity they got to spend a moment with him. The most lucky ones will of course get to do his new customary my-heart-goes-out-to-you gesture alongside him if he makes history tonight.