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By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Saturday June 19, 2021

 
Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic means a lot of things to a lot of people - here's what he means to Tennis Now's Chris Oddo.

Photo Source: Getty

The fact that Novak Djokovic climbed tennis’ version of Mount Everest in Paris last week shouldn’t come as a surprise.

It’s kind of how he has always rolled.

Tennis Express

Today Djokovic—a lofty aspirer that now owns 19 Grand Slam titles and 326 weeks (and counting) at World No.1—is nearly level with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in terms of major singles titles and GOAT mentions. He’s also in the process of surpassing both Federer and Nadal in most meaningful statistical categories (another conversation for another time), but it is Djokovic’s past, and the path he took to this mind-bending present, that really amazes.

Not the numbers, but the manner in which they were achieved. That’s what makes the Djokovic legend so rich, so varied, and so unfathomable. That’s what makes the Serbian’s run to the Roland Garros title in 2021 his most impressive, and the one that will ultimately define him best. The fact that Djokovic has built his legacy steadily over the last decade against seemingly insurmountable odds; that he’s had to climb uphill to hunt down an established hierarchy that would have preferred to keep him at bay.

There was a time, at the end of 2010, when Roger Federer owned 16 Grand Slam titles, Rafael Nadal had nine and Djokovic had one.

It’s hard to believe—but true.

Djokovic’s dilemma? How to mount an offensive against the odds, and take down the two-headed monster at the top of tennis.

Djokovic’s response? An unceasing assault on the record books that could see him pass Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles before he is done.

Would it surprise you?

But I digress. Numbers try but don’t explain the essence of Djokovic, both on the court, where he has crafted the perfect circle of balance and harmony—offense to defense, finesse to power, constancy to evolution—and in the collective mind of observers, where he rests as the defiant one, the one who methodically embraced the biggest challenge our sport has ever offered and engineered a coup d’état de tennis.


What does Djokovic mean to you? It’s a question I have asked myself a lot after he defeated Nadal in Paris just over a week ago.

In achieving that victory, and becoming the only man to ever defeat the Mallorcan twice at Roland-Garros, where Nadal is a 13-time champion and a grim reaper for all clay-court aspirants, Djokovic has reminded us once again of the hair-raising competitive vitality that he possesses.

There are many reasons to admire Djokovic’s game—he’s the chameleon that can slip into any skin, the classic technician that excels at every facet, the jaw-dropping contortionist that can time a backhand down the line with his arms and legs akimbo—and even more reasons to love the mindset. Djokovic is the impossible is nothing poster boy. Ten years ago he was a maybe. Today he is the surest thing the sport has ever seen, on any surface against any player—even so-called GOATs..

To think that he could have dominated a decade on hard courts is one thing—that’s always where we saw Djokovic making his biggest impact—but to observe what he has done to expand his empire to grass, where he is now a five-time Wimbledon champion, and clay, where he has become the only player defeat Nadal twice, is just pure insanity.


When his career is over we might be wondering: who was better on grass, Federer or Djokovic? On clay, there will be no doubt that Nadal is the best ever, but the mere fact that Djokovic is the only player on earth with the game and gumption to push him is another testament to the Serbian’s relentless pursuit of his vision quest.

Djokovic’s ability to rise to the Federer-Nadal challenge, to stick his chest out and say I am coming for everyone, whether you like it or not, has always been gripping reality TV. If we watch the most brilliant players of the ATP’s generation next fumble and be foiled by a Big Three that now includes Djokovic as its alpha dog, we can gain appreciation for the level of belief and execution necessary not just to match but overtake Federer and Nadal.

Now we can start to steer this conversation in the direction of what the World No.1 has just achieved in Paris. This wasn’t about a number: 19 Slams, two Career Slams, two wins over Nadal at Roland Garros, two comebacks from two sets down, seven of the last 11 major titles won. This was about the courage and conviction to finish what he started a decade ago.

It was done brilliantly, impossibly, and unexpectedly. Winning a 19th major in any fashion is remarkable, but to do it by climbing tennis’ version of Mount Everest, is the stuff of legend.

One only needs to think about the numerous times Federer tried—and feebly failed—to even compete, let alone defeat Nadal at Roland Garros to understand the monumentality of the task accomplished. This is not a knock on Federer, it’s a simple fact laid bare to illustrate just how daunting the task of facing Nadal on the terre battue at Roland Garros is. The same could be said for Nadal’s other victims (they do look feeble juxtaposed with the King of Clay, right?), but Federer is the prime example. When Rafa goes hunting on Court Philippe-Chatrier, cover your eyes, tennis’ version of blood and gore are soon to be found.

But it wasn’t that way last Thursday. It was Djokovic climbing the high peaks and kicking aside the toughest challenge that tennis has ever known. It was the Serb in all his power and all his glory, summoning that extraterrestrial perfection, demonstrating the ability to absorb every body blow that Nadal can toss his way and pay it back with interest.

We should have known when he let out that scream after his quarter-final win over Berrettini. That was the I'm coming for you scream.

And that’s what makes Djokovic the legend he is. He’s the ultimate tennis hunter. Give him a target and eventually he’s gonna give you a victory. Ten years ago he set his sights on an impossible task: Catching Federer and Nadal, not just in numbers, but in skill and savvy and form and fiber. Along the way he has produced some of the most outlandish victories. The match points saved against Federer at the US Open in 2010 and 2011. The five hour and 53-minute Australian Open epic against Nadal in 2012. The Djokoslam—four straight majors—that concluded with his Roland Garros title in 2016.

There has been heartbreak along the way as well. There was a bitter taste in 2011 in Paris, the year that the tennis world realized that Djokovic was suddenly unlocked on the clay, and able to match wits and grit with Nadal, when he saw Federer snap his 43-match winning streak in the semi-finals.

There was heartbreak again in 2016 after he vanquished Nadal but fell to Wawrinka in the finals. And for the next five years we wondered: where was that Djokovic on clay, the one that could match up with Nadal on the surface like nobody else dared to do?

Some—myself included—wrongly assumed we may never see that Novak again. Perhaps it was too taxing to produce that level, too much of an investment to make, physically, emotionally and mentally, when there are other empires to be looked after in Melbourne, at Wimbledon and in New York.

But there he was last week to remind us of who he is. Djokovic makes no secret about the fact that he wants to break all the records. It doesn’t feel like he wants them for himself. Djokovic shares his success with Serbia, with his fiercely loyal and perpetually inspired fan base, and those who are crazy enough to believe that you can be the best, or maybe even better than the best.

 

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