First let me say what an awesome match Novak played on Sunday. Legendary and spectacular. A wondrous start to the new tennis year, and the kind of performance that will live in the hearts of fans forever.
Novak, the new GOAT (Greatest of All Time)? Era of Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal over? The era of Novak, Novak, Novak?
Not so fast.
If anything, Novak’s 2011, including his recent fifth major title at the 2012 Australian Open, represents more of a summit of his period of dominance, and the years to come, including the remainder of 2012, may be more difficult for him.
Let’s look at how these eras come and go from a historical perspective. It is an artifact of history that A, true rivals learn to play one another, B, that one player or another in a rivalry has a "hot" streak, and that, C, head-to-heads even out over time as the dominated rival learns what it takes to win.
It’s true that some players never learn new tricks, but more about that later.
Let’s look at some storied rivalries (OK, I only have time for one):
Martina Navratilova vs Chris Evert. Evert was already a multi-slam winner and world No. 1 when Navratilova began to produce some of her best tennis. For quite a few years—a long time in tennis terms—Martina dominated their head-to-head. Nonetheless, Evert learned how to play her, and by the end of their careers, their head-to-head was roughly even.
But, you say, let’s look at Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Sampras dominated this rivalry in the slams and, to collapse the rivalry down to a phrase, Sampras "owned" Agassi.
Similarly, it seems Rafa Nadal has "owned" Roger Federer in the Slams after the former matured into an all-court player—though Roger has "owned" Rafa at the year-end indoor events.
It is important to note that these trends took years to unfold.
Here’s the deal. Roger had a hard time admitting in 2006-2007 that Nadal was a legitimate rival, and addressed the aspects of his game specifically to counter what Nadal was doing to him. He treated Nadal like an anomaly, which the next slam test would neutralize. Agassi never solved the problems posed by Sampras.
Why do I think that this year’s Australian Open might be ominous for Djokovic? His main rivals made significant progress taking sets off of him, pushing him, and learning him (the player I’ll call Novak Novak Novak —mature and confident brilliant player of 2011).
Rather than proving that Novak "owns" all comers, I suggest the opposite, that Novak has a big target on his back, some really determined, legendary competitors hounding his footsteps and on the horizon youngsters Bernard Tomic, Milos Raonic and Ryan Harrison.
We already know that one rival can stay close enough to Novak at Slam matches to beat him under selected circumstances. You’re beginning to see other rivals probing the weaknesses in Novak Novak Novak’s game and learning the level at which they need to advance their own game, including the world No. 2.
Just as Federer’s brilliance forced other players to grow their own games to successfully compete with him, and just as Novak himself addressed his weaknesses and demons in order to successfully compete with Roger, you can see Novak’s rivals making progress, growing their own games and overcoming their own demons.
That’s why I’m going to claim that the dawn of the Novak Takeover "era" was closer to last year’s Australian Open, and may come to a close with this year’s Australian Open.
Martina Navratilova dominated in 1983, and pulled out a fantastic Australian Open win against rival Chris Evert in 1984, then was No. 1 in the world on and off for years to come. Just as Sampras and Agassi produced compelling tennis for a decade, and it wasn’t clear until the close of that period which one was the more dominant of the two.
That’s the compelling era of tennis that we are in.
That’s not to take away from Novak’s inspiring and historic performance in the epic 2012 Australian Open final, nor his historic 2011 season. Novak is the real deal, and he is here to stay. He is off the charts. He is going to be one of the sport's greatest champions.
He has a hall of fame game and has proven to have a uniquely inspiring combination of heart and audacity.
What I am trying to say is that, for us fans, the era of gloating has not yet come; the era of mutual respect for these champions is still with us. Rushing out to proclaim Novak the new GOAT is as unseemly a bit of hubris as … producing a jacket emblazoned with No. 15 a mere 60 seconds after outplaying a rival by a couple of points in a historic fifth set of a Wimbledon final.
I’m not saying that was Roger’s fault. But it was still disrespectful to our beautiful sport and drew what I'll call a fans' yellow card.