Nobody is unbeatable, but Novak Djokovic is storming into the 2016 Australian Open with about as much invincibility tennis has ever seen. He has nearly double the ATP ranking points of Andy Murray or Roger Federer, and he’s been at the center of recent media and fan discussions as one of the greatest players of all time.
The case for the world No. 1 is easy. Djokovic dominated 2015 with three majors and seven of the 10 other best titles on the ATP tour. His serve is better than ever in leading off his brutally efficient offense. His combination of service returns and defensive tennis might be the best ever. He’s redefining mental toughness in how he shakes off pressure, this generation’s fiery yang to yesteryear’s cool yin of Pete Sampras.
Now King Novak readies for his defining major tournament and favorite (plexicushion—slow hard court) surface that has staged his record five championships.
He’s thrown off world No. 2 Murray time and again in recent big matches. He’s slammed the door on Federer’s aggressive renaissance. And he’s hammered Rafael Nadal like no other, crushing him for the ninth time in 10 matches with his recent lesson at Doha.
Bleacher Report tennis fans came out en masse in a recent Winners and Losers column to praise Djokovic’s talents with admiration from many and helpless dread from others. Many of the other comments left Nadal for dead.
When was the last time any superstar could match Djokovic as this much of an overwhelming favorite at a Grand Slam venue?
Into the Time Machine
We’re going to trace our journey from present to past to identify the last time the best player was considered a virtual lock to win a major.
In 2015, for all of Djokovic’s greatness, there were sizable factions that believed Federer could beat the Serb at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon.
Prior to that, Nadal fans felt their man had a puncher’s chance at Djokovic. In short, Djokovic was nearly always the favorite, but the feeling was that he had to prove himself each time the next major came around.
From 2013-14, Djokovic was unable to get in the kind of groove and dominate the way he had in 2011. He had dropped several big matches in finals to Nadal and Murray, and although he was usually the No. 1 player, he did not show nearly the dominance or maturity that has become godlike in 2016. It was also the last great rivalry run from Nadal, so clearly there was no dominant favorite.
Djokovic capped off his amazing three majors in 2011 with close-shave victories over Roger Federer in the 2011 U.S. semifinals and then against Nadal in their marathon Australian Open final to commence 2012. It seemed to drain the Serbian as he weakened for the rest of the year, while his three other rivals picked up one big major trophy apiece. Parity was partial at the very top.
We have to go back further in time. Although Nadal dominated 2010 with his own three-majors season, it wasn't a certainty he would regain his French Open crown, and he was not a lock to win Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. He did triumph, of course, but as much for his trademark, underdog champion’s role even though he was playing the best tennis on the tour.
Now we arrive back at 2009, perhaps the most important year that would eventually cement the legacies of Nadal and Federer.
First, the Spaniard defeated Federer for the 2009 Australian Open. It was his third major in four attempts, and it seemed that he had a chance to completely dominate the tour for several years and quickly surpass the Swiss in the total majors count.
After that final, he trailed Federer 13-6 in the slam count, but he had broken his rival with the French Open pending.
Nadal was an enormous favorite to win the 2009 French Open, comparable to 2016 Djokovic coming into the Australian Open. Before the tournament, Nadal was undefeated at Roland Garros and had a strong mental advantage over Federer, to put it mildly.
That he did lose to Robin Soderling did more than snap his French Open streak. It was partly responsible for the tailspin and injuries that put him on the shelf. (Federer’s subsequent wins at the French Open, Wimbledon and 2010 Australian Open became the last glut of major titles from the legendary Swiss.)
And Federer’s dominance? By 2008, the Swiss was usually a favorite, but it was a young Djokovic who cracked his near-invincible hold off clay, defeating him in the Australian Open semifinals.
Nadal had already sent Federer to the brink in the 2007 Wimbledon five-set classic, so by 2008, his total domination had dissipated somewhat. The Spaniard became the overwhelming favorite for the 2008 French Open and backed it up with legendary ease.
Federer’s last time as the truly overwhelming favorite, like 2016 Djokovic, came at the 2007 Australian Open. Yes, it’s been nine years that he was a virtual guarantee. The Swiss Maestro did not disappoint in that one, destroying all seven opponents in straight sets, including a helpless Fernando Gonzalez in the final.
At the 2007 Australian Open, Federer towered over the rest. Nadal was still trying to build his championship mettle off clay, and the Swiss waltzed through a draw that included No. 3 seed Nikolay Davydenko, No. 4 seed Ivan Ljubicic, James Blake, Andy Roddick, Tommy Robredo and other top-10 players—all solid but certainly not as imposing as the top players in today’s tennis.
For the record, young Djokovic was seeded No. 14 and walloped by Federer in the fourth round.
Federer earned and enjoyed his role as overwhelming favorite from 2005-06, excluding his inability to topple Nadal at the French Open.
Speeding backwards, and with more brevity, the great Sampras had these kinds of spells at Wimbledon in the 1990s, Ivan Lendl was this dominant in 1986-87 French and U.S. Opens, and Bjorn Borg had shackled the late 1970s before John McEnroe rivaled his greatness. Young Jimmy Connors had his dominance in 1974.
In the Open era, Djokovic has already challenged many of the great players and established epic streaks of his own. His status as the overwhelming favorite for the 2016 Australian Open is still a rare feat, historically speaking.
Invincible but Not Unbeatable
It would be dangerous for King Novak to read his own press clippings. One look at history, and there are plenty of examples when dominant champions fell. Nadal shockingly lost to Soderling in 2009 after destroying him in Rome 6-1, 6-0 just weeks before. Federer fell to young Djokovic in the 2008 Australian Open. The mighty Lendl fell to Michael Chang in the 1989 French Open fourth round.
Even King Novak cannot be impeccable all the time, though it would be a mistake for his opponents to play as if they hoped he would drop a level. Last year, Djokovic struggled in his semifinal win against Stan Wawrinka. Some tennis observers backed Murray leading into the final.
Giant upsets do happen—it just takes one bad day at the office, or a poor hour or two. Even a single point, like a wayward overhead can cost a superstar a chance at closing out a huge match (See Djokovic’s most infamous miss against Nadal late in the fifth set of the 2013 French Open semifinals).
Yes, an upset can happen when a strong player like Wawrinka gets into the zone or an unexpected young player like Nick Kyrgios picks the right day to put together his talent and play out of his mind. There's still wily Federer, resilient Murray, and maybe Nadal can mount a surprise.
Other than that, it seems nobody has a chance to defeat King Novak.