Novak Djokovic Facing Uphill Battle to Take Place Among Tennis' All-Time Greats

Greg CouchNational ColumnistJanuary 28, 2016

Novak Djokovic of Serbia celebrates after defeating Roger Federer of Switzerland in their semifinal match at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016.(AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
Rick Rycroft/Associated Press

It really is unfair to Novak Djokovic: He has now surpassed Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, but he isn't going to be considered better than they were.

Djokovic is now a one-man dynasty in tennis, a sport that is bored by such a thing. It takes a rivalry to draw the major interest and pull in the casual fan.

Djokovic pounded Federer on Thursday in the Australian Open semifinal, 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3. To break it down to all the relevant statistics: Ouch. Federer was scared at first, and Djokovic jumped on him for it. By the time Federer relaxed, it was too late.

For the first time, Djokovic has now beaten both Federer and Nadal more often than they have beaten him. And what does he get for overcoming two of the greatest players of all time? Tennis isn't celebrating Djokovic's greatness.

It is suffering a hangover from the passing of the Federer-Nadal era. They are casting too big of a shadow over Djokovic.

"Both Roger and Rafa have contributed a lot to my career, to my success," Djokovic told Jim Courier in his post-match on-court interview over the PA system. "These two rivalries I've had, playing those guys 100 times combined obviously made me a better player. I've worked hard to get myself into a position to challenge them.

"It wasn't easy. But right now, I feel like I'm at the peak of my career, and I'm trying to cherish every moment on the court."

It has truly been an amazing thing to overcome them. When you have an all-time great at the top of your sport, it's important for the next generation to pass him. Otherwise, it just feels as if the entire game dropped off. Because nobody could take down Michael Jordan at the peak of his powers, the NBA is still comparing its superstars to him.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic hits a return during his men's singles semi-final match against Switzerland's Roger Federer on day eleven of the 2016 Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 28, 2016. AFP PHOTO / PAUL CROCK-- IMAGE RESTRICTED TO
PAUL CROCK/Getty Images

Djokovic had the opportunity to beat Federer and Nadal head-on, and he has done it. But it just feels as if he's beating up on an older Federer, who is now 34. And he only got about a year of Nadal's prime.

Tennis should be thanking God for Djokovic. He is colorful, friendly and great. Instead, it feels as if someone has let the air out of tennis. The first major of the year has been overrun by reports of anonymous players—major champions—throwing matches for gamblers. And the aura of Djokovic isn't enough to overcome it. Yet he's about to win his fourth major out of the past five.

Djokovic put his success so eloquently after the match when he said, "Obviously you play a lot of mind games with yourself and it's important to always believe you can play your best, perform your best. And it's important that at the end of the day, your convictions are stronger than your doubts."

His convictions are now stronger than everyone else's doubts, too.

The truth is that Federer isn't going to win another major. He still has the legs at 34 and has adjusted his game for his age. But his mental toughness is shot. Nadal probably won't win another major either. With his pounding style, he has lost a step, which keeps him from getting into the position he needs for his wicked topspin forehand, which reduces his spin, which means less control, which has drained his confidence.

So the greatest rivalry in sports is now irrelevant. But our memories of their greatness are locked away in place, not vulnerable to Djokovic.

Meanwhile, tennis' bigger problem is that the next generation not only isn't ready, but it isn't coming either. And that has left Djokovic out there on an island without a superstar in his prime to beat.

He describes Federer and Nadal as his rivals, and I'm sure that's what it feels like in his brain. But from the outside, people always saw Federer and Nadal—from the moment of Nadal's great Wimbledon final over Federer—as the driving force. Djokovic just sort of photo-bombed tennis history.

Unfair? Yes.

He still will have to win the final over Andy Murray, or possibly Milos Raonic. Murray is probably Djokovic's real rival, but they just happen to be the same player: two longtime friends doing the same things on the court, using incredible speed and patience.

Watching Djokovic play Murray is not exactly like watching Federer play Nadal. In fact, it's straight-up boring.

A great rivalry needs friction and contrast. Federer floated over the court, was smooth, perfect and right-handed; Nadal stormed the court, had long hair and was a lefty. Federer went barely noticed in the U.S. when he was a solo dynasty, but then he became a superstar when Nadal beat him.

Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi; Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. These guys are all opposites. I once went to a match in California where Sampras angrily served one at Agassi's head.

And they were both retired. And it was a match for charity.

In some ways, it would be so much better for tennis, and for Djokovic, if Raonic could beat Murray in the other semifinal. Raonic is 25 and is the best chance for the next generation.

I'm not sure he's athletic enough, but a tall guy playing a power game could give Djokovic the contrast he needs.

Tennis finds itself in a strange search. It has its leader at the top doing his part. Now, to cure its hangover, tennis needs to take two aspirin and find Djokovic his rival.