It’s not that tennis fans are unaware that Novak Djokovic can make history by winning the French Open. After all, the world's No. 1 has dominated tennis for two years now. Yet, media and fan interest is hardly in an uproar.
It’s been a more muted reception for Djokovic, respectful, but it's cold and distant from those who root for Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. No matter what the Serbian accomplishes, it seems there are always the detractors.
So, what if Djokovic has 84 weeks at No. 1. Federer has over 300.
Suppose Djokovic wins the French Open. Big deal. Nadal has seven.
Career Grand Slam? Yawn. We covered that three and four years ago.
Contrast this to the excitement tennis fans invested in Federer from 2005-2009 until the Swiss Maestro finally tracked down his white whale. Even last year, Federer fans crunched numbers to anticipate what it would take for him to return to No. 1.
Nadal continued to garner media and fan support even while sidelined for half of 2012. Even through some recent clay-court hiccups, he is the overwhelming favorite to win the French Open, backed by legendary recitations of clay-court dominance and numbers likely to never be seen again.
Meanwhile, few are aware that Djokovic can be the first tennis player since Jim Courier to win the year’s first two Slams. Yes, there is respect for Djokovic but comparatively little devotion and enthusiasm from those outside of his loyal fans.
Arriving Too Late?
Suppose you arrive at a beach party that had been filled with warm weather, surfing, swimming, beautiful people and great food. The festivities were at an all-time high. You’re excited to participate and can even show everyone that you are the best surfer on the beach.
Except that you’ve arrived late in the afternoon. Litter and debris are now scattered upon the ravaged shore. The best food has been consumed, people are tired and bored and the wind is chilly. Everyone would rather lazily huddle together in floppy sweatshirts, chatting about memories of the great times that occurred earlier. Few people care if you are a great surfer, and only a handful will cast a glance in your direction.
In many ways, Djokovic is a victim of timing. He is like the NBA’s 1989 and 1990 Detroit Pistons who finally made it to the top with athleticism and grinding defense. Basketball fans could never appreciate Detroit after witnessing the Golden Age of Magic Johnson’s fastbreak, scoring “Showtime” Lakers and Larry Bird’s “Globetrotter-passing” Celtics.
Suppose Djokovic turned 24 years old in 2000 on an ATP tour that lacked Federer and Nadal. He could have ravaged the field and rewritten the record book, and perhaps soaked in the adulation and love that befits his genuine personality and awesome groundstrokes.
Instead, if you go to Google and type in “Nadal,” there are about 84 million hits. Type in “Djokovic” and there are about 32 million hits. (The numbers fluctuate day by day, but the Nadal: Djokovic ratio has been anywhere from 2:1 to 4:1 the past week. On Thursday, “Nadal” had 155 million hits and “Djokovic" had 44 million hits.)
History is Now
Maybe tennis fans should talk more about Djokovic’s accomplishments, but the puzzle is much greater than scattered pieces. Bar conversations and blogs are rarely centered on numbers alone. Personalities, records and stories are a kind of unpredictable connectedness that travels the light rails of public interest. The gravy train of fame and adoration must stop at crowded stations rather than whisper by in the still of night.
Djokovic has the problem of trying to carve out new records over real estate that has already been staked out. It would be like Columbus arriving to the New World three centuries later. Djokovic has sailed to the precipice of a flat world.
So, he keeps winning, enough to dominate, but not enough to step out of the shadows of his larger rivals. He can only control his own matches and keep moving the chains, hoping that time will part asunder the clouds that have dampened the mood to his heroics.
Time and another generation may have to create a new landscape of conditions and stars before seeing a renaissance of new tennis creativity and fresh ebullience. A moratorium may be needed before another Golden Age can dawn for a new wave of stars.
Just don’t miss out on Djokovic’s unique march of accomplishments. Though he is the third wheel to this particular age, he has already established himself as one of the ten best players of the Open era. He has more prime years to carve his name into several more big trophies. Perhaps, he marches into the record books with unprecedented pages of his own.
And, in case anyone has forgotten, he could be holding up a French Open trophy next week.