Beyond all the boundless limits to his talent – from the elastic movement that absorbed Matteo Berrettini’s power down to the guile of his drop shots – no quality separates Novak Djokovic quite like the mind. If ever an example was needed, it came in the third set of Sunday’s men’s singles final. Facing two break points at one set all, the crowd on Centre Court erupted into chants of “Mat-te-o”. Barely able to conceal his disgust, Djokovic backed away from the baseline and began not just tapping his temple but drumming a finger against it, as if storing up all the resentment. And, in that moment, as the crowd beckoned for his downfall, the match turned irrevocably. Djokovic wielded his mental strength like a weapon, took the next four points by storm, and never allowed Berrettini so much as another foothold.
The sheer scale of Djokovic’s dominance over the past decade has made that pattern a familiar tale. Over the years, he’s not just ironed out every weakness in his arsenal, but also found a way to harness the less controllable factors. Seen through the lens of an iconoclast, slowly dismantling the glories of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, an air of reluctance to celebrate Djokovic’s achievements has succeeded only in hardening his resolve. Every heckle seems to reignite the chip on his shoulder. Take last week, for example, when he was rather unfairly asked what it’s like to be “the ‘bad guy’ chasing after Roger and Rafa”.
“I’m not chasing anybody,” he said curtly. “I’m making my own path and my own journey, my own history.” Seizing on every slight as ammunition, Djokovic has now forged a path that will take him beyond comparison and leave an indisputable legacy. “The last 10 years have been an incredible journey,” he said in warning after lifting his sixth Wimbledon title. “That’s not stopping here.”
But if Djokovic’s feats have not always been hailed with glee, there is at least a sense that by equalling Federer and Nadal’s record, he will now finally get the acknowledgement he naturally desires. A few games after he showed his irritation on Centre Court, as he closed in on a four-set victory, a small chant went up in Djokovic’s favour. He turned towards the noise, raised his racquet like a conductor and demanded an encore. Before long, the entire crowd had joined in, if not out of love, then at least in reverence. History will remember it as the day the Serbian finally matched the record that was always supposed to be out of reach. Very soon, regardless of favour, it will have no choice but to accept him as unrivalled, too – that much is as inevitable as the long sunset of Federer and Nadal’s careers.
How far he will actually stretch the record will amount to a test of ambition. At 34, he has shown no signs of physical decline, with his agility on the baseline still unparalleled in the modern game. Nor are there any great warnings that he cannot continue to single-handedly hold back the next generation. Denis Shapovalov provided a stern test in the semi-finals and was able to dictate the tempo of rallies with frenetic energy. But under the weight of expectation, Shapovalov and later Berrettini both double-faulted. At the French Open last month, Stefanos Tsitsipas, perhaps the spearhead of the young pretenders, failed to close out victory with a two-set lead against Djokovic in the final and then fell in the first round at Wimbledon.
It is not just a case of Djokovic having the ability to raise his level in key moments, but how his dominance has arrested his competitors’ learning curves. His stranglehold over major tournaments has deprived them of the experience required to overcome such high-pressure situations. A select few might know what it’s like to be there, but for the most part, they still don’t know what it takes to win. What for Djokovic is innately familiar, to them remains utterly foreign. And so until his determination flickers or age finally betrays his mobility, there are few signs of an end to this era.
At the US Open, Djokovic will attempt to become the first male player to complete the calendar grand slam since Rod Laver in 1969. Regardless of it being through gritted teeth rather than grace, he isn’t just matching the heights of Federer and Nadal, he’s surpassing them, and Djokovic’s quest to conquer tennis is far from over.
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