Nobody needs to tell Novak Djokovic the thin line between greatness and legend on tennis' ATP tour. For the past three years, the Serbian champion has dominated the No. 1 ranking and captured five Grand Slam titles. All this while playing in an ultra-competitive era versus warlike Rafael Nadal, talented Roger Federer and determined Andy Murray.
Has there been a tougher, more competitive field for a superstar who has entered his prime? Well, contemporary rivals Nadal and Murray are in a similar boat and together have formed a triangular kind of duel like the closing shootout in Clint Eastwood's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Blink once and it will be fatal.
2013 was a prime illustration of just how difficult it was to dominate tennis. Djokovic won seven titles including the Australian Open, Monte Carlo, Shanghai, Paris and the WTF final in London. He split six matches with rival Nadal and finished with over 12,000 points, more than double that of No. 3 player David Ferrer. Yet, he was second fiddle to Nadal.
Djokovic has been the standard bearer for consistent greatness. The 2010 French Open was the last time he did not make the semifinals at a Grand Slam tournament.
In 2013, he was a finalist at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and a semifinalist at the French Open. It's a great year, but it could have been better.
Djokovic looks like a tennis player. He has that lean, sinewy athletic build and a crew cut right out of the sports photos of the 1950s. If you grouped together 10 random players from the ATP tour, he would stand out as the one who most fits the image of 21st century tennis athlete.
But unlike the smooth Federer and the furious Nadal who have fascinated tennis fans with their more human tennis foibles, Djokovic's game is more machine-like. It's as if he was constructed to be the perfect tennis player on both wings, offensively and defensively. He is the prototype if androids are to be designed for future tennis competition.
Djokovic's offensive attack is to create sharp angles and paint the sidelines with his punishing groundstrokes. He is able to hit through the court with flatter spin and greater power than most of his defensive rivals. His backhand is particularly lethal, especially eager to punish slow bouncing topspin and short balls.
In today's tennis, the very best players must be great defenders or they will inevitably be exposed in a two-week Grand Slam tournament. There is nothing Djokovic cannot do on defense. He scampers like a greyhound, determined to reach every ball and to reverse all damages accumulated in a dogged rally. Nobody is more flexible and able to reach out farther with such deadly turnabout.
He can overpower Murray or Nadal from the baseline when he is in the zone. At the 2013 U.S. Open final, Djokovic displayed one of the great power baseline performances, dealing shots to Nadal's corners that made rendered his rival slow and punchless.
Except that Djokovic only sustained this excellence in the second set and most of the third.
Had he been able to keep up this pace a few more points, perhaps he would have finished off his physically artistic masterpiece—an athletic demonstration painted in screaming dark hues and ready to enshrine in Newport, Rhode Island.
"When Novak plays (at) that level," Nadal said, "I'm not sure if (anybody can) stop him," he said for ESPN.com.
But he lost that match in what would have been his second Grand Slam title of the year. Instead, The Player of the Year Award was carted to the other side of the net for a deserving Nadal and his monstrous 2013 comeback.
Djokovic knew that he could have defeated Nadal. After all, nobody has been built to counter Nadal's strengths better than himself. So how did he lose? How could the ultimate tennis machine fall short of winning multiple Grand Slam titles in 2013?
Clay King Redux
Djokovic has been chasing Nadal on red clay since 2006. He's come a long way from that French Open quarterfinals loss to Nadal in which he won only four games before retiring after the second set. A year later, he was drubbed in straight sets in the semifinals, but it was progress.
It's been a long, gradual process to catch up to Nadal—universally branded as The King of Clay.
By 2011, Djokovic had picked up the gauntlet and delivered his rival two finals defeats on clay, at Madrid and Rome.
In April 2013, he crushed Nadal at red clay in Monte Carlo and ended the Spaniard's eight-year title run at this venue. He was primed to win the French Open and consolidate his dream of capturing this elusive title.
And he would have, could have and perhaps should have won that semifinal match. Serving at 4-3, he ran into the net on a smash volley and lost the point. It would be one of only a few mistakes, but it cost him dearly, perhaps the match. Once again, somehow, someway the King of Clay escaped and went on to win another French Open title.
Was it merely a mental lapse after a physical error? Was it just bad luck? Were the tennis gods just unusually cruel on that hot, dry afternoon?
It would be the difference in winning the French Open (Fantasy tennis aside, there was no chance David Ferrer was going to win the final) and enduring a series of disappointing summer setbacks.
One more match at Roland Garros and Djokovic would be the Player of the Year with two Grand Slam titles. Two more key wins this year and he might have been holding three Slam trophies. And had he the energy to fight off Andy Murray and Great Britain, well, perhaps he could have won that one as well.
Ultimately, it would be a few moments that made the difference in a few matches. Was it too much Nadal or something else?
“I guess it’s the small details and few points can decide a winner, and that’s why I need to be very disciplined and focused in order to get emotionally, physically, and mentally ready for that (French Open semifinal) match,” he stated prophetically in tennisX.com.
It would be the theme of an otherwise awesome 2013 for Novak Djokovic.
He closed the indoor season by battering the rest of the tour for four titles and he hammered Nadal twice. He lost his No. 1 ranking, but did not gift-wrap it for his Spanish rival. He kept coming after every match as if it were his last.
And if the last three years are any indication, Djokovic will recalibrate his great talents for a spectacular 2014 season, beginning with his attempt to win a fourth straight Australian Open title.
A few more points could be the difference in taking over the top of men's tennis once again.