NEW YORK — He’s a man in full flight, at the top of his game, athletic, resolute, a champion whose future is no less beautiful than his present. Novak Djokovic had a rare year in tennis, a winner of three Grand Slam tournaments, a runner-up in the fourth.
But it’s not so much what Djokovic has done—adding another U.S. Open championship to his collection of titles with his win Sunday over the man who was the gold standard of the sport, Roger Federer.
It’s what Djokovic should do in the coming years—play his way into the upper echelon of competitors—Federer, Pete Sampras and Rafael Nadal—and become one of of the greats, if he isn't already after gaining a 10th slam title.
There’s no question Djokovic owns men’s tennis at the moment. His 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 victory against Federer, with most of the 23,000 fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium cheering and pleading for Federer, showed rare skill and determination. Federer is everyone’s favorite, because of his age, 34, and his achievements, mostly the record 17 Slam victories.
And at 28, a man professing he “loves to play,” there’s no end in sight for what Djokovic may accomplish. He has at least four more good years, if he avoids injury. And with Federer near the end—“I’ll see you guys next year,” he promised the crowd—Nadal out of sorts and Andy Murray a notch below, if only slightly, Djokovic should dominate for a while.
Federer has 17 Slams, then Sampras (retired) and Nadal 14. Djokovic is the only other active player with double figures, which as John McEnroe, who won seven, said as an ESPN commentator, “Double digits—that’s amazing.”
McEnroe, a brilliant analyst, said more about the guy the other players call the Djoker. “He’s put himself among the greats,” he said. “Two straight Wimbledons over Federer. His steely resolve is what separates him. He’s been tested mentally. He stays the course.”
On this cool final night of the Open—and cool can be interpreted any way you want—Djokovic was facing a break point 23 times during a match that started three hours late because of rain and then lasted three hours and 20 minutes. He was broken only four of those 23. That’s mental toughness in the extreme, the sort of mental toughness demanded if you’re going to respond to every challenge.
“He doesn’t get the cheers like Roger,” said McEnroe of Djokovic, “but maybe someday when he’s 34 and has 16 or 17 Grand Slams, he will. And he’s certainly got respect.”
Djokovic has been No. 1 in the rankings since last year. Serena Williams got the headlines most of the summer for her chase of the calendar year Grand Slam—all four majors—that came to a bitter end in the Open semifinals. Yet, Djokovic, who reached the final of all four Slams, might have had a better 2015.
“It’s been an incredible year,” agreed Djokovic. “Next to 2011.” That’s when, like this year, he won the Australian, Wimbledon and the U.S., but unlike this year, only made to the semifinals of the French.
“All those results and achievements,” he said, “are motivation for me to win more.”
There are young players on the horizon, but you’d need binoculars to see them. Tomas Berdych and Stan Wawrinka aren’t as skilled as Djokovic, although Wawrinka did beat Djokovic in the French Open final in May.
Nobody in the game today has the physical gifts of Djokovic nor, after Djokovic matured around 2005 or so, the mental capability. His response to some of Federer’s daunting shots was remarkable.
“It was a very good match,” said Federer, “knowing I was playing against one of the great players in the history of the game. I had my chances, but Novak fended them off. I lost because of the mistakes I made.”
What do football coaches say, that the team with the fewest mistakes will win? So it is in tennis. Djokovic had 37 unforced errors, Federer 54.
Djokovic recently married and became a father, so his life off the court is stable and rewarding. Not that his life on the court isn’t.
“I knew Roger was going to be very aggressive,” said Djokovic. “I knew what I needed to do. Roger is always out there making you play your best. I had to be mentally tough. But I was ready for the battle.”
Now, he said, he’s ready to reflect on what he’s done. Some of us will contemplate what he could do.
“Being in the situation before helped me prepare for the obstacles," he said.
The next obstacle is the 2016 Australian Open in January.
Djokovic will be there and be the favorite. And, as McEnroe mused, maybe he’ll finally get the cheers. He already has the accolades. And 10 Grand Slam championships with more almost certainly in his future.
Art Spander, an award-winning columnist, has covered more than 50 Grand Slams in his career. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.