Novak Djokovic has usually been a late bloomer, and his Grand Slam success is a hard-earned reminder.
After the Serb's breakthrough major championship at the 2008 Australian Open, it took him three more years to mature into Djokovic version 2.0—the best player in tennis.
That first peak effectively ended with his epic 2012 Australian Open win over Rafael Nadal, and he knocked around as the No. 1 or No. 2 player, losing big matches as often as not, and certainly not putting in his candidacy as the greatest player of all time. It was hardly a "dark ages," but he did experience championship doldrums.
Then came 2015 when Djokovic version 3.0 drubbed the ATP tour with perhaps the greatest season of all time. King Novak had arrived. Of course there was still no French Open title, and until it happened he would wear that sin around his neck like Coleridge’s albatross.
Twelve years after his first attempt, the late-blooming legend finally held up the Musketeers' Cup. The French crowd at Roland Garros, watching amid historical monuments like the Eiffel Tower—which opened two years before the French Open was first played—got to witness something that had never been done.
The Serbian is the only player in tennis history to hold all four majors at once by winning on grass, two kinds of hard courts and clay. He, not Roger Federer, Nadal, Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg or Rod Laver has shown this kind of dominance and versatility. It's fitting because of how he plays on offense and defense, backhand to forehand with virtually no weaknesses.
Life as a Grand Slam champion begins at 29.
Majors Don’t Come in Boxes
Djokovic probably still has bottles of French champagne sitting in the ice bucket, but that does not mean it will be easy for the major titles to keep flowing into his trophy case. He is focused and loves to win, but there’s only so long a champion can remain the greatest.
How hard is it to maintain this unprecedented peak? It took the greatest 12-month period ever to leap from eight to 12 career titles, and he’s earned the accolades for discussions about being the greatest player in history. At the same time, it’s ridiculous to believe Djokovic will simply add six or eight more of these majors.
King Novak has spent a career getting a dozen titles, but this is not buying donuts.
Ask Andy Murray how difficult it’s been to get that third major. Three years and counting.
Listen to what Federer warned shortly after the 2015 ATP World Tour Finals, as reported in the National:
It’s going to be hard for him to have a bad year, but you can’t just repeat a year like this.
It takes a lot of effort. You’ve got to be in shape physically with no injuries whatsoever. Mentally you have to be at your peak at all times. It’s not as easy as it seems sometimes.
The Swiss Maestro should know. He was 28 years old when he dominated the 2010 Australian Open for his 16th major, and it seemed easy for observers to tack on another four to six titles as if they were a foregone conclusion. Then Nadal had a resurgence, Djokovic came of age and Federer, even with periods of great tennis, only added one major title (2012 Wimbledon) in over six years.
Nadal? The decline happened quickly. No sooner had everyone assumed he only needed one more year to grab a 10th French Open title, well, he couldn’t even effectively compete for the latest edition at Roland Garros. His aging body has been beat up if not burned out in trying to add one more major title.
Extending King Novak's Reign?
Djokovic at least has firsthand lessons of his rival contemporaries. He knows that even his best tennis might not be enough on some days. Stan Wawrinka punctuated this point in the 2015 French Open final.
There’s always a Jiri Vesely waiting in the opening rounds or a tireless Murray pushing so hard to get that next huge win. It’s possible that rising potential stars like Dominic Thiem, Nick Kyrgios or Alexander Zverev suddenly make the jump into being a major champion.
Getting that very next major championship might prove to be the most difficult one yet for Djokovic just when it seems like he cannot be beat. The task is no less than being better than at least 128 of the greatest players in the world in one draw.
For now, Djokovic deserves every bit of press for his Grand Slam. Naturally, talks will turn to him completing the 2016 calendar Grand Slam by winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. It's insane to suggest anyone can win six majors in a row, so it seems easy to estimate he can win two majors a year for the next three years and surpass Federer’s 17 majors.
But it’s more likely he will slow down. Maybe he only wins one major in 2017 and 2018, while we watch Alexander the Great and Dominator Thiem crush everyone on the slower surfaces. Perhaps Kyrgios turns into a monster on the fast surfaces, thereby breaking up the Djokovic empire with a triumvirate of power.
Since the ATP No. 1 ranking has been calculated, only Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi have won two major titles after turning 30 years old. Djokovic will only keep adding more majors if he continues to expand his dominance long after should be expected. But if anyone can bloom well into his 30s, it’s Djokovic.
There’s a long way to go, even until Wimbledon when misfortunes can turn as quickly as a misstep on slick grass. Will he stay healthy and fresh? Can he escape poor matches and hot opponents? Will he be playing pantheon tennis by 2017 or even by September’s U.S. Open?
Today it’s easy to say “yes,” but tomorrow can be a paradigm shift.
Maybe the best reminder of all came from Andy Murray—at the French Open post-match ceremony—who delivered his praise for Djokovic, via the Daily Mail:
What he [Djokovic] has achieved over the last 12 months is phenomenal. Winning all four Grand Slams in one year is an amazing achievement.
This is something that is so rare in tennis. It's not happened for a very long time and it's going to take a long time for it to happen again. Everyone who came here today to see it is extremely lucky.
There were times when Sampras, Federer and Nadal were so dominant it seemed like it would stretch on for years, and then they were second or third and the major titles stopped. Appreciate Djokovic now because we can marvel at what he is doing in the present, while the future hangs tenuously in balance.
Let’s see when he gets No. 13, and then we will reset the discussion.