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Novak Djokovic closes in on eclipsing Federer, but is still never the favourite

Novak Djokovic is on course to win three or more Majors and break Federer's all-time record. Why then, despite arguably being the most dominant player since 2008, does Djokovic not draw the kind of adulation that Federer and Nadal do?

Written by Dipankar Lahiri | Updated: October 11, 2020 5:56:05 pm
Novak Djokovic won the 2020 Australian Open final in five sets against Dominic Thiem, but he was never quite able to win over the crowd. (Twitter/AustralianOpen)

Novak Djokovic was serving for the match and his eighth Australian Open title after a three-hour-fifty-minute grueling battle against Dominic Thiem at the Rod Laver Arena on Sunday, when he was interrupted by a shout from the crowd. He looked up in the direction of the guilty audience member, gave a withering look, there was an exasperated shrug, then he got on with it and won.

Sunday’s victory was his 17th Grand Slam title, and he is now just three away from Roger Federer’s all-time mark of 20 Majors. The victory against Thiem didn’t come easy though.

Djokovic’s body language had seemed negative quite frequently during the match, as he fought back after trailing by a set for the first time in an Australian Open final. This was Melbourne, his fortress, where he had won seven times earlier. It’s a title no one in history has won more than six times. And yet it was Thiem, the 26-year-old Austrian who has never won a Major, the crowd was cheering.

During the match Djokovic scowled at the crowd, screamed at his box, raged at the umpire and hit his chair in frustration. In the third set, it seemed as if his wheels were coming off. The crowd, the chair umpire, the linesmen, the top of the net and maybe even the grinning ball kids seemed to be part of a conspiracy against him.

This frustration was on show in the final game as well. It was as if Djokovic could not believe that the crowd would not even let him have that moment.

Most dominant player since 2008

There are said to be three crowd favourites in tennis this century: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and whoever is playing against Novak Djokovic.

Why, despite arguably being the most dominant player since 2008, when he won his first Grand Slam, does Djokovic not receive the adulation that Federer and Nadal do? Since 2008, Djokovic has won 17 Majors, Federer has won 8 and Nadal 16.

After the final, Djokovic made his objective clear. “I’m thrilled to be in a position to be in the mix for most Grand Slam titles at this stage of my career, and professionally that’s what matters the most,” he said.

Also Read | Close friend Troicki roots for Djokovic from India

“I’m not in my twenties so obviously things are a bit different. I have to be just more precise and more organized in my preparations for the Grand Slam and prioritize these tournaments,” said Djokovic.

At 32, Djokovic is six years younger than Federer, who he beat in three sets in the Australian Open this year. He is well on course to win three or more Majors to break the Swiss maestro’s all-time record. Last year, he won both the Australian Open and the Wimbledon. This year, he dropped a total of three sets on his way to the title – two of them were to Thiem in the final. If he plays at this level for another two to three years, he could become the most accomplished tennis player in history.

Nadal will win his 20th Major if he can win the French Open this year as well, eclipsing Federer’s record before the Serb. However, the Serb’s doggedness, his two-year-advantage in terms of age over Nadal and the kind of stamina shown by him against Thiem in the final keeps him in good stead to outlast the Spaniard as well.

Djokovic and the Federer vs Nadal script

Could the popular sentiment towards (or against) Djokovic be because of how characters are built in sporting narratives? Could it be that Djokovic’s misfortune of being in the same era as Federer and Nadal is not because of how he is an inferior player than them but because of how he is not as fitting a character as them?

Federer the ‘artist’ with the ‘precision’ of a ‘Swiss watch’. Nadal the ‘warrior’ with the ‘strength’ of a ‘bull’. Pit these two extremes against each other and you get a sporting contest to be talked of for ages.

Djokovic’s emergence and his subsequent rate of winning titles has gone against this script. The Serb, who grew up playing tennis in swimming pools ravaged by war, is an outsider to this ‘artist vs warrior’ narrative.

He has brought to the sport the ethos of the fighter. The willingness to retrieve every shot. The seemingly impossible attribute of growing in energy as matches wear on. Like how he suddenly transformed from an exhausted heap to an athlete who would not give an inch as the fourth set began in Sunday’s final. The ability to outlast his opponents. Like when he beat Nadal in the 2012 Australian Open final over 5 hours and 53 minutes – the longest final in the Open Era Grand Slam history.

All of this coupled with Federer’s precision and Nadal’s power.

Will it be ironic for the sport of tennis if the greatest player ever to have played it does not have the painter’s touch or the gladiator’s brute strength, but the elastic resistance of the fighter instead? Like it or not, Djokovic is coming for all the records the sport has to offer.

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