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THE MAN’S TOO STRONG

THE MAN’S TOO STRONG

And I can still hear his laughter
And I can still hear his song
The man's too big
The man's too strong

-Dire Straits, from the album Brothers In Arms

27 down, 1 to go. In beating Zverev, Nole confirmed that the inevitable will happen. We are only going through the motions – an extended crowning ceremony! He is too big, he is tooooo strong!! I do not see him tripping at the final wire. If it had to happen, it would have happened by now. Zverev before this semi-final was 3-6 in his head-to-head with Djokovic. Importantly the three wins were in a Masters 1000 Final at Rome, the Final of the Year-End Championship, and the last time they played, at the semis of the Tokyo Olympics. Sascha has won in all the other key tournament levels, but not in a Slam. He had a chance. But he fell short of doing enough.

The last man standing in the way, Daniil Sergeyevich Medvedev is 3-5 vs Nole. They have met twice in Grand Slams, the last being this year’s Australian Open Final where he was given a sound thrashing. He is a very thinking player and one does expect him to have learned from the previous encounter. But it is time to bow to the genius in front of us, one of the greatest tennis players of all time. 

THE RECORD-BREAKER

Novak Djokovic has already scaled impossible peaks. Playing in a generation where he shares the stage with two other players who can also stake a claim to being one of the greatest of all time, he has in many ways surpassed them in multiple ways. Novak is the ONLY one to 

  • Win all 4 Grand Slams twice each in the Open era – Rod Laver has obviously also done this, but one of his two times was in the amateur era.
  • Win each of the 9 Masters 1000 tournaments twice – no one else has done all 9 even once.
  • Do a non-calendar slam – doing four in a row, holding all four titles at the same time (without doing it in the same calendar year)

He also holds a winning head-to-head record against both his chief rivals. He has beaten almost everyone else roundly and soundly. He has played some sublime tennis along the way. Paeans have been written already on his having the best return of serve, his ability to defend and then swiftly turn defense into attack and so on. His confidence in his craft and his ability to steamroller all opposition is phenomenal indeed.

To my mind, the incredible thing Djokovic has achieved is his route to getting here. In 2007 he made his first move up into the Top 10 – he became at the time one of the few players who had beaten both Federer and Nadal in the same tournament. He won two Masters 1000s and reached the final of the US Open – he was only 20. He then started 2008 by winning the Australian Open. But after that, major victories dried up for a while. 

BESTING THE BEST

At the end of the ATP season of 2010, he was beating almost everyone but not the two who mattered. His resume had 4 Masters, 1 Slam, and 1 Year-end Championship. He had been #3 in the rankings for pretty much four years. Something which is unprecedented. Usually, players outside of the #1 and sometimes the #1 and #2 tend to move up or down quite a bit. To be at #3 for what seemed perennial, with two other players holding the top spots for what seemed like forever, was not something that had been seen before in tennis. 

2010 also seemed like the year of the official passing of the torch. Though Nadal had become #1 in 2008, he was plagued by injury in 2009 and Federer had regained the #1. In 2010 it seemed as if Federer was finally fading, and we were now in for a new era – that of Nadal. Rafa won 3 Slams, reached the career Grand Slam and was now firmly #1. 

Djokovic who was clearly very talented still was like the 2nd best man. One thought maybe he will now succeed to the best man. At this point, his H2H with Federer was 6-13, with Rafa 7-16. Other than some initial successes he was not really winning the ones which mattered against the top dogs. And Rafa was now the unquestioned king, starting his reign.

In an astonishing twist to the tale, Nole completely switched the script. Starting with leading Serbia to the Davis Cup trophy at the tail end of the year, Djokovic went on an unprecedented tear. He won 3 Slams in 2011, he won 5 of the 9 Master’s 1000s in the year, and became World #1. Since then, he has only grown bigger and bigger till he looms large over the men’s game. 

THE GAP FROM #3 TO #1

I cannot recall a single instance of a player being #3 for four years and then passing the higher-ranked players while they were still playing and winning trophies. In the 1970s -80s, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova between them pretty much sealed the top 2 spots. For a 10-year period, they completely held sway over the tennis world. 

There were two players who had the ability and the game to dent this dominance. The first was Tracy Austin. She burst onto the scene in 1979 reaching the semis at Wimbledon and winning the US Open. She was only 16 years old (Emma please take note). She also won the US Open in 1981. She won two-year end championships and did reach #1 briefly for a total of 21 weeks in two bursts. Unfortunately, injuries cut short her career. She had a H2H of 13-20 with Martina and 8-9 with Evert. Critically she beat them both In Grand Slam Finals. Maybe without her injuries, she would have blazed a trail similar to Novak’s.

The second was Hana Mandlikova. She was a formidable player and even won 4 Slams while the Chris-Martina show was in full ascendancy. But she could never get beyond #3. She had a pretty poor H2H vs both, 7-19 to Evert, 7-29 to Navratilova. But one can see the potential from the fact that in the Grand Slam finals she had a 2-1 record against Martina. 

Neither of these two or numerous other players have managed to do what Nole did, which was to find two absolutely outstanding obstacles ahead, be thwarted by them time and again, but to rise again and finally problem-solve how to beat them on the biggest stages. This to my mind is his greatest achievement.

NEW HEIGHTS FOR TENNIS

In doing this Nole has raised the game of tennis itself to a new level. If one reruns Federer vs Nole at Wimbledon in 2019, or Nole beating Rafa at the French this year or at the Australian last year – one will see that these two aged warriors are probably playing better tennis than they themselves played in their younger days. And yet Nole was playing at that level and stayed a further step ahead. We have been lucky to see three such champions play together, and this constant rivalry has helped them to raise their game, leading in turn into the sport itself getting better. Going by his game today, world #8 Rublev would easily thrash say a Tsonga or Gonzalez or Krajicek or Henman in their prime (all named have been year-end #8s). I am not asserting that Rublev is better than all these names, merely pointing out that these three wonders have accelerated the evolution of tennis so much that the players today are inevitably better than the ones just gone before. That is an amazing achievement.

PREDICTION

The chance that Djokovic will now lose in my opinion is close to zero. He is just too big, too strong!! The weight of history right now is a guiding light beckoning him to write a chapter that has not been written before. Medvedev may have a different opinion and I would not like to count him out, but……

Finally – does it even matter? Let us enjoy the match. Let us cherish that we were here to watch this epoch-defining event. We will either coronate the King or in the extremely unlikely event of an upset, commiserate with him for this last-minute tug of ill fortune, while still expressing wonder at what he has done. 27 wins in Slams in one year is no joke already.

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