Stronger Era, Better Player: Novak Djokovic and His Predecessor
Around two weeks ago, Novak Djokovic reached his second US Open final after defeating Roger Federer in a marathon semifinal match that went the full distance. This was an epic win for the young Serb against a man who was considered by many to be the prime favorite to win the title for the sixth time.
This is a good opportunity to compare Djokovic to the big Russian player, Marat Safin, who dominated in the previous era that featured Federer as the alpha male.
Both Djokovic and Safin excelled above all on the hard courts and have similar aggressive, counter-punching baseline styles. Their lanky physiques are alike, and both are from Eastern European countries. In fact, Russia and Serbia have strong diplomatic ties to one another.
A comparison of these two players will also lead to a comparison of the respective eras in which they competed.
I believe Djokovic is the superior player.
This opinion is backed up by the fact that Djokovic has already won more titles at a younger age (seventeen to Safin's fifteen), has won more prize money, and will probably also surpass (or at least tie) Safin's two Slams in the near future.
Djokovic currently has one Grand Slam to his credit, achieved at the Australian Open in 2008. He is still only twenty three years of age.
The Serb is winning these titles in a stronger era, with big, solid baseliners wreaking havoc on the tour, and the likes of Rafael Nadal and Federer dominating the game.
One of those "big boys" is Tomas Berdych, who ended Federer's extraordinary finals run at Wimbledon. Another is Robin Soderling, who has notched wins over Nadal, Djokovic and Federer.
And yet another is the mighty Juan Martin Del Potro, who has multiple wins over Federer and Nadal, and whose power game is considered by some as the future of tennis.
The Swiss Maestro is still playing his unique brand of sublime, effortless tennis. Only those of limited knowledge of the game would consider his capabilities diminished compared to his years of flamboyant dominance between 2004 and 2007.
Djokovic defeated him in three important matches in the last two years, when Federer's game was not much different than 2005, the year he lost to Safin in the semifinals of the Australian Open.
These triumphs by the Serb came in the semifinals of the Australian Open in 2008, in the final of Federer's hometown tournament in Basel, and at the semifinal stage of the US Open this year.
Djokovic has six total wins against Federer, including a Masters event victory over him in 2007 in Montreal, when the latter was said to be at his peak.
At the US Open final in the latter stages of the 2005 season, Federer lost the second set to Andre Agassi, who was thirty five years of age at the time and had played three back-to-back five setters leading up to the showdown with the Swiss. The first set had gone to Federer.
Agassi was also up a break at one point in the third set, and a lucky net chord off the American's forehand helped Federer set up an easy backhand winner to break back.
By then, the much older Agassi had deflated from all the hours he had logged in previous matches. Had he won the third, the confidence and momentum may have carried him through.
Can one say Federer was playing better in that match and at that stage of his career, than the above-mentioned defeats to Djokovic? Not likely.
Safin has only beaten Federer twice in twelve attempts, his other victory coming in 2002 in the Russian's backyard (Moscow), when Federer was not THE player his is today. He was not even able to gain one set off his rival in their final two matches.
The big 6' 4" Russian emerged on the tour when Pete Sampras and Agassi were winding down their careers, and the main dominant players were Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt (both great, but one-dimensional players) and Federer.
I feel that whole 'Federer era' was not of the same calibre as the current one.
The Swiss took advantage of a volatile, inconsistent Safin, a powerful, but limited Roddick, who did not have the versatility from the baseline to back up his massive serve, and a counter-punching Hewitt, possessing not a single big weapon that could trouble Federer.
He won six Slam finals against these players.
In comparing Safin and Djokovic's games, one notices a similarity in their baseline approach. Both thrive on their strike-first abilities on the hard courts.
Safin was known for his phenomenally huge groundstrokes off both wings, and his big serve, one of the finest of all time. But he was inconsistent in extended rallies, his impatience getting the better of him as he went for broke to end points.
Djokovic can produce similar weight behind his shots—though he was superior to Safin in both the consistency and depth of his groundstrokes.
When the Serb first broke onto the tour, it was the great length of his shots that set him apart from his peers. He is able to find the lines time and time again.
His serve is a great weapon as well, and when he is on his game, the accuracy of this shot is rarely matched.
In terms of movement, Djokovic is equal to both Nadal and Gaël Monfils in athletic ability, and certainly surpasses his predecessor, Safin, in this regard. Djokovic in full flight on a hard court is a sight to behold.
Safin and Djokovic met twice on the tour, with the Russian winning both matches: at the Australian Open in 2005, and in the second round at Wimbledon in 2008. However, these two matches mean little with regards to their overall abilities.
Djokovic was a mere lad of eighteen in the first encounter, and he played below his best on his worst surface in the second. The top seeds are sometimes vulnerable in the early rounds as they adapt to the new environment, and this match was no exception.
Federer was almost a first round casualty at Wimbledon this year. And Boris Becker and Hewitt actually lost in the same round, failing to defend their Slam titles as they fell to lesser foes.
Had Safin and Djokovic met on a hard court from 2007 onwards, the Serb most likely would have emerged the victor.
These two players have brought much to the sport of tennis: marvelous shot-making, wonderful charisma on and off the court, and superb competitive qualities.
But when combining the eras in which they played and their overall achievements, Djokovic comes out on top.
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