Three Grand Slam titles in 2015 have put Novak Djokovic in a rare position of absolute dominance. Already, the thinking must be that with 10 career major championships, the durable and tough-minded Serbian is in great position to climb even further up the ladder of elite Open-era champions. We note that he is already there, and it’s now just a matter of how far he will soar.
Furthermore, Djokovic once again proved his toughness and unflappable ability to overcome pressure. His latest final win against fellow legend Roger Federer was another gutsy display of mental toughness and physical bravado, blending his athleticism and muscle memory to persevere in spite of a U.S. Open crowd that vociferously, and at times shamelessly, acted like a World Cup soccer crowd.
For winning yet another hard-fought major and entering the land of double digits, Djokovic is indeed worthy of being dubbed King Novak for the remainder of this column. Per Tennis.com, Federer "predicts more majors" are in Djokovic's future:
King Novak’s Apotheosis
Fresh off the emotions of a second U.S. Open title, critics and fans are more willing to extrapolate King Novak’s numbers, and certainly the path ahead may be thinning. His greatest rival, Rafael Nadal, is no longer playing championship-level tennis, the mighty Federer cannot crack him at majors and Andy Murray has never really been his equal.
Even the "Lost Generation" of Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori have proved to be fading shadows rather than rising suns. And it’s ridiculously early to consider the "Next Gen" group of baby 20-somethings featuring Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverez and a trio of Australians.
No, as long as King Novak is healthy, energetic and does not inexplicably feel the sudden malaise of age, he could have another two or three years at something near his current level.
Furthermore, King Novak has augmented his physical superpowers with his insatiable desire to win more championships. He understands his place in history and who he needs to chase down. He knows that the scoreboards and record books are the way he will win the grudging respect of his legacy detractors.
He has pushed out his lanky chest to take on the world, but King Novak must be prepared to throw even more of his body and soul into even greater rewards.
It’s one thing to project what King Novak can do today, but even an offseason can change the destiny of tennis’ dominant ruler. For all of his progression as a champion, the demands of staying on top are no less demanding than absolute.
Any slippage in King Novak’s conditioning or game could be the difference in winning several more majors or perhaps hitting the kind of wall that Federer bumped into by mid-2010. Look no further than the great Nadal, a champion long revered for his fight and toughness.
Two years ago, fans wondered if he could roar past 200 career weeks at No. 1 and step past Federer by the time he was 30. Nadal lasted only 39 more weeks on top (141 career weeks at No. 1) and added one more major 15 months ago.
Meanwhile, King Novak has quietly put together 63 straight weeks at No. 1, the longest streak of his career. He is all but guaranteed to clip off at least 36 more weeks with the top ranking and race past 200 total weeks. However it's just not that easy to stay on top no matter how clear the road may appear.
In Lewis Carroll’s lesser renowned classic Through the Looking Glass, the cold Red Queen tells Alice, "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” King Novak must evolve; yes, get even better, in order to hold on to his scepter. He must play smarter and stronger because Father Time will pull out his stopwatch and hunt him down.
Remember that it takes only one emerging star to shut out even the second-best player. Federer and Nadal have been on both sides of that as well.
Every major must have the urgency of “now or never” for King Novak.
If all goes well, there’s a great chance that King Novak wins his 11th major title in 2016, perhaps as soon as early February in Melbourne where he has already been the most dominant player in modern professional tennis. This will put him in a tie with Sweden’s greatest star, Bjorn Borg.
Australian giants Rod Laver and Roy Emerson claimed 11 and 12 majors, respectively, although all but Laver’s latter titles were picked off in the pre-Open era.
The most interesting chase could be King Novak's run at 14 majors. It’s a landmark number occupied by Pete Sampras and Nadal, both of whom could be many fans’ picks for the mythical "Greatest of All Time" player.
If Djokovic lands at 14, he’s right there with anybody in the history of this sport. (Sidenote: It will be easier to catch the retired Sampras. Nadal could conceivably enjoy another mini-renaissance, thereby getting to a 15th or 16th major and denying Djokovic a couple of possible golden opportunities.)
Will King Novak track down Federer’s 17 majors? No, it’s not impossible but too unrealistic for a current or near-future discussion. He would have to win multiple majors each of the next three years, most likely, and we saw how difficult that was between 2011 and 2015 when he mustered “only” one major per year.
Then again, when King Novak was stalled at eight majors following an excruciating French Open final defeat, it might have seemed improbable that he land at 14 majors. A few months later, he has capitalized with awesome resilience, and he has proven worthy to chase bigger goals.
The future is still in motion, but right now King Novak will not be stopped.