Novak Djokovic Battling for Glory in Extremely Competitive Era

Andrew Prochnow@@AndrewProchnowAnalyst IJune 10, 2015

Novak Djokovic of Serbia holds up the trophy after defeating Roger Federer of Switzerland in the men's singles final at the All England Lawn Tennis Championships in Wimbledon, London, Sunday, July 6, 2014. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
Ben Curtis/Associated Press

While Novak Djokovic may not yet have earned that elusive French Open title, it's all but certain he has earned the empathy and respect of tennis fans around the world.

Amidst the carnage of the epic war being fought for the "Greatest Of All Time” title, Djokovic has quietly been playing some extraordinary tennis over the last few years.

As the gods of tennis and their attendants sit in the clouds and debate the Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal conundrum, Djokovic has been much like Theseus of Ancient Greece—slaying opponents left and right with the relatively muted recognition of a demi-god.

But isn't that how heroes normally go about their business—grinding out victories over armies and giants as if it's just another day at the office?

According to mythology, Theseus slew the half-man, half-bull beast known as the Minotaur in the labyrinth of Knossos. In slightly less dramatic fashion, Novak Djokovic recently conquered a different bull-themed opponent in straight sets at the 2015 French Open, his first such victory in seven tries.

Unfortunately, Djokovic wasn't able to punctuate that epic triumph by claiming the championship at Roland Garros and completing the career Grand Slam; a theoretical sequence of events that would have added significantly to the Serb's own mythological tale.

But Djokovic, like any hero of Greek drama, has been subject to an occasional stutter-step. His overall 8-8 record in Slam finals contributes to the tennis world occasionally overlooking this supposedly lesser being in favor of Federer and Nadal.

Like Zeus and Poseidon, these two legends have ruled over their respective kingdoms for so long that it was becoming difficult to imagine what life was like before they arrived.

But just as Theseus is long remembered in the scrolls of Greek mythology, Djokovic is seeking to make a mark of such historic significance that he too might be raised into the clouds.

Without that pesky Spaniard in his way, Djokovic may have already been deemed worthy.

Instead, while he has maintained the world's No. 1 ranking, he's collected the exact same number of Slam titles as Nadal since the start of 2012: four. And in Grand Slam competition, Djokovic is 1-3 against Nadal over the last couple years.

Rightly so, the world of tennis is still transfixed on whether or not the Spaniard can overtake Federer's record number of majors before both players retire.

However, Djokovic is beginning to pull a portion of that attention back to his own extraordinary feats. The Serb has after all appeared in 14 of the last 19 Grand Slam finals and, in the process, pulled his head-to-head record against both Federer and Nadal almost even.

Djokovic's divine season in 2011 was the launching pad upon which his career found orbit. A year in which the Serb nearly claimed a new record for the most wins without a loss to start a calendar year. Notching 41 wins and zero losses into his season start, Novak fell just one win short of tying John McEnroe (1984).

That would be the same 12 months (2011 to 2012) in which the Serb nearly became the first male player since Rod Laver to hold all four Grand Slam trophies at once. In what previously would have been considered an unthinkable feat, Djokovic beat Nadal in three straight Slam finals (2011 Wimbledon, 2011 US Open, 2012 Australian Open) before he finally succumbed to the King of Clay in Paris.

And if you needed more evidence that the Greek metaphor fits, look no further than that 2012 Australian final. It was the longest Grand Slam final in the history of the sport and seemed to make the earth tilt upon Atlas' shoulders with every bludgeoning stroke.

Djokovic has blazed some impressive new trails while following in some broad footsteps. Unlike Federer in his best years, Djokovic has actually been putting Rafa to the test on clay.

In the lead-up to the French Open during that magnificent 2011 season, Djokovic beat Nadal in the finals of two clay tournaments—another unthinkable feat at the time.

Ben Curtis/Associated Press

Since then, Djokovic has notched four additional wins against Nadal on the red dirt, most notably the aforementioned straight-sets win during the quarterfinals of the 2015 French Open.

Just as Djokovic has slowly but surely carved out wins against Federer and Nadal in recent years, the Serbian has also quietly carved out his own special niche on tour.

With the French Open firmly in Nadal's tight grasp and Wimbledon having been branded with a stylish "RF" long ago, Djokovic went east and due south of home to advance his cause.

It’s on the continent of Australia that Djokovic has been busy building a growing empire.

The tournament in Melbourne may not have the same pedigree as the other three Slams, but that's mostly due to its relative isolation prior to the advent of commercial flight. And this upstart venue may actually represent the perfect fit for Djokovic's new line of tennis royalty.

In 2013, Djokovic became the first open era player to win the Australian Open three consecutive times. Then, in 2015, he became the first in his era to win the Australian Open on five total occasions—a feat that certainly goes a long way in cementing his legacy.

Additionally, let’s not forget Djokovic's recent domination of the ATP World Tour finals. Having first won the event in 2008, he has now claimed the last three, becoming the first person to win a trio at that venue consecutively, too.

Like Federer before him, it seems that Djokovic has identified the Achilles' heel of his greatest rival—indoor hard court. Brandishing what has to be one of the most dynamic backhands in tennis history, Djokovic denied Nadal his first-ever ATP year-end trophy in 2013.

Although Djokovic may have finally struck Nadal down at the French Open this year, it will certainly not be the final blow exchanged between them. Nadal bounced back from a one-sided defeat to Djokovic at the 2011 U.S. Open by beating him soundly during the 2013 edition.

It's all but certain these two gladiators will meet again soon and extend what has become the most prolific rivalry in the open era.

In the meantime, the great debate between Federer and Nadal will surely rage on. And amidst the booming thunder and lightning of that discussion, Novak Djokovic will continue writing his own remarkable story.

And with two or three more titles Down Under and the final piece in his career Slam puzzle, he may even ultimately be rewarded with his own place in the heavens.


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