World No. 1 Novak Djokovic has a sizable lead over Andy Murray in the ATP rankings. He is poised to defend his U.S. Open title and finish the year with another flourish. He’s been one of the most dominant champions in history at a time when many contenders are battling hard to join the elite superstars.
Superlatives on the 29-year-old Serb are often inadequate. He’s a dynamic defender, keen ball striker and savvy competitor, the superstar tennis guru Nick Bollettieri called “the game’s most complete player, ever,” as headlined in the The New York Times, and that was in 2013. Last year, Bollettieri amended this in The Independent, calling Djokovic “the most perfect player of all time.”
And then Djokovic went out and won the only all-surfaces Grand Slam in tennis history.
For sure, we’ve never seen a champion with fewer weaknesses. Add in his growing versatility and resilience, Djokovic passes the eyes test with no disputations.
The only thing left is just how long Djokovic’s reign will continue. Can he build on a legacy that has in some ways already surpassed his contemporary super rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal?
He shouldn’t have anything to prove, except that winning the 2016 U.S. Open is a critical piece for supporters or detractors who will eventually look back at his legacy to determine if he deserves the mythical title as the “Greatest of All Time.”
How Super Novak Went Supernova
Entering 2015, Djokovic had seemingly settled in as a future Hall-of-Fame player with seven majors and just as many second-place finishes at these venues. He was cruising past 100 weeks at No. 1, but it turned out that his biggest wave of dominance was just beginning.
Djokovic demolished the field in 2015, capturing three major championships, six Masters 1000 titles, the World Tour Finals for the fourth consecutive year and what could justifiably be cited as the “greatest season of all time.”
King Novak was not finished. Having already won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, he tore through the 2016 Australian and French Opens capture the Grand Slam, something that has been vastly underrated, even ignored by many tennis observers.
Djokovic built up an insurmountable rankings lead over Murray, Federer and everyone else on the planet. The dominance would only stop when Djokovic could no longer win gluts of majors.
Cooling Down or Heating Up?
Nobody expected Djokovic to lose in Wimbledon’s third round to unheralded Sam Querrey, so although his incredible major streak is over, it does put a greater premium on The U.S. Open.
If Djokovic does not win the U.S. Open, history will close the book on his super streak at the trophy ceremony of the 2016 French Open.
Even if he resumes winning titles beginning in Melbourne 2017, there would be a gaping resume hole in the second half of 2016, a lull or fade that interrupted five majors in six attempts and four in a row. Critics might point out that he couldn’t win a fast-surface major in 2016.
Maybe he would be stalled at 12 major titles and perhaps find it more difficult to grind out a major here or there as he turned 30 in May 2017.
There would be more hope for the rest of the ATP tour, especially with a surging Murray who pursues the No. 1 ranking, and soon enough another star or two could come of age.
On the other hand, winning the U.S. Open would clinch two consecutive years of winning three majors, something only Federer accomplished in the Open era when he ruled in 2006-07.
Djokovic needs to match this portion of the Federer legacy to enhance his prime legacy, and it could place him on track to finish with a few more huge titles in 2016, perhaps sealing the greatest two-year period in tennis history when placed with 2015.
Furthermore, Djokovic would move within one major of Pete Sampras and Rafael Nadal who are tied with 14 career majors, and he would pull closer to Federer’s watershed standard of 17 major championships. Like it or not, all legacies bidding to be “the greatest ever” must be linked to these totals.
Furthermore, Djokovic would have more momentum and belief to keep charging forward in 2017. Could he win three more majors in 2017? Will he keep adding to the glut of majors that began in 2015, that did not end with a hiccup at Wimbledon 2016?
Winning the 2016 U.S. Open could turn back Murray and turn into another two years at No. 1 as he slips past 302 weeks by summer 2018.
There’s always more to the story than numbers, but at the moment Djokovic is the most important player in tennis. He’s living history. He’s either just completed a run as one of the greatest legends the sport has ever seen, or he’s in the midst of even greater accolades to come.
Someday all of us will look back and say that we were lucky to witness the prime dominance of King Novak. It could be bigger than we know as we head into New York to see if he can keep extending his epic run.