Novak Djokovic has certainly had tougher losses than his third-round defeat to Tommy Robredo at the Western & Southern Open, but once again he was unable to decorate his Hall of Fame resume with a special piece of history.
Djokovic was seeking to become the first player to win all nine Masters 1000 tournaments. (sidenote: To be fair to past generations of tennis players, the ATP tour has only emphasized its Masters Series since 1990, and it took a decade for it to develop into its current importance.) He needed only to win the Western & Southern Open, but he will have to wait another year for an opportunity that may increasingly become more difficult as he ages.
Make no mistake about it. This was not a case of Djokovic being fatigued or unmotivated. He did not empty the chamber with extra matches at the Canada Open. He was aware of the history and wanted to win this title, telling ATP World Tour as much:
It would mean a lot to me. Making history in this sport is a huge privilege, just having the opportunity to do that. I will go for it. Of course, it's an extra motivation. I played four finals there. Always played well, but never managed to make that final step. Hopefully this is the year.
Curiously, Djokovic did not play with his usual fire in the 7-6(6), 7-5 loss to Robredo. He was sluggish and generally looked to hit balls safely rather than attack his more inspired opponent. Even battling back from a 6-3 deficit in the tiebreaker, he did not play like the World No. 1, and he did not show the urgency or passion that he brings in battling his biggest rivals.
This week did matter for Djokovic because it was a chance to add an important collection to his legacy, and specifically something that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal will likely not accomplish. For now, this is a lost opportunity.
Trailing Bigger Legends
It’s never been easy to be Djokovic. Early in his career, he saw Roger Federer rewrite the record book with the blessings and praise of sports fans around the world. His contemporary rival Rafael Nadal immediately stamped his eternal dominance on clay and played with the kind of ferocity that captivated and divided the tennis world.
Meanwhile, Djokovic took a few more years to mature into a champion, while all the prime real estate of Grand Slam records had been bought up and developed. Djokovic’s great accomplishments always felt too late to be revered by the sports world, and if they were recognized by astute tennis fans, they have not created the kind of legendary identity comparable to the updated immortalization of Federer and Nadal.
In essence, Djokovic’s seven majors and 19 Masters titles are lost in the shuffle of players like Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Mats Wilander and Andre Agassi, superstars to be sure, but overshadowed by bigger stars who dominated with greater fury and results.
Djokovic’s resume is almost too balanced. He has won two Wimbledon titles, but nobody is going to compare him anytime soon to the greatest grass players of all time.
He is very good on clay, but is dwarfed by Nadal. Djokovic’s clay-court heartbreak at the French Open has added more critically acclaimed recognition for Nadal’s continued monopoly at Roland Garros, and he has still not (unfairly expected?) claimed his own career Grand Slam.
On hard courts, Djokovic is great, but his four Australian titles are matched by Federer and Agassi, and it’s unlikely he will carve out a U.S. Open resume like Federer or Pete Sampras. So, tennis fans can’t call him the king of hard courts either.
And that’s the frustrating thing about rooting for Djokovic. He arguably has a more complete baseline game than his two fiercest rivals, a greater backhand, and the best returner since Agassi. He’s mentally tough and resilient, but Nadal still gets the career nod for being greater.
There’s no surface or conditions that Djokovic should not be able to conquer. He is usually the favorite wherever he goes, and he is a gamer, showing up and taking on all challenges.
Sports fans examine the B-sides to his records. He is often not lauded as much for what he does accomplish, but rather for what he has not won. His 2014 Wimbledon title was secondary news to Federer’s near miss. Or when Nadal adds another major, talks of Federer and Sampras turn into more all-time conversations.
Just what does Djokovic need to do for his own unique immortal legacy?
Another Career Surge
Djokovic’s loss at the Western & Southern Open is not as important as a Grand Slam loss, but it was nevertheless a disappointment. And now the questions will come about his readiness for the U.S. Open. At his best he is the prohibitive favorite, but right now he is not there, and he assessed this in ATP World Tour following the Robredo loss:
Just many, many, many things are not clicking these two weeks on hard courts. It's unfortunate, but it's more than obvious I'm not playing even close to what I'm supposed to play. I have to keep on working and trying to get better for Us Open.
There’s time to be ready, but will he find the zone and tear through the draw like so many tennis fans expect? Isn’t this the time for Djokovic to put together a second career surge, along the lines of 2011 and his three majors?
If he does win the 2014 U.S. Open, suddenly he is looking great for Australia and Roland Garros, along with the Novak Slam discussions once again.
Talks could turn to climbing the career majors list with 10-12, at least.
He could go after 200 career weeks at No. 1.
Maybe, like Martina Navratilova—10 of her 18 majors after she turned 27 years old—he could turn his late 20s and early 30s into the best part of his career, or at least a big run at doubling his current career accomplishments.
Meanwhile, Federer and Nadal would be out of the picture and perhaps sports fans could watch the Serbian rule at the top of the tennis world.
Until then, there is a lot of time and winning to be done, and it can only happen one match at a time. We don’t know how Djokovic will end his career, but there is so much to appreciate about his opportunities, and it's a tribute to him that he is climbing the ranks in tennis' greatest legacies.
Maybe the Cincinnati loss will only sting for awhile and reawaken his drive and performance for greater success.
Or maybe he is still waiting for Nadal to return.