Caught between the glorious memories of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic will always — in the eyes of many — remain the third wheel; a great player who survived until age caught up with Federer and injuries with Nadal; a player who could have never beaten them at their best.
But then memories have a strange way of playing tricks on the mind. You remember what you want to remember, the rest simply fades away. In this case, the rest unfortunately also includes Djokovic.
Our Twitter and Facebook timelines are filled with comments about the Wimbledon final and almost all of them have a simple underlying theme — great that Djokovic won but so sad that Federer lost. Our love for Roger knows no end. Neither does our love for Nadal. But Djokovic is in that strange middle ground — we are unsure of whether to wholeheartedly embrace his unflinching greatness or to hold back because maybe, just maybe, Federer and Nadal still have a chance at glory.
The crowd at the Wimbledon yesterday cheered that bit louder for Federer, egged him on that little bit more, wanted him to win that much more. But Djokovic, somehow, found a way to shut all that down and focus on the match at hand.
“Novak has shown he can play totally unimpacted, totally uninfluenced by everything around him,” Federer said after the match and it was as high a compliment as the Serb has probably ever got.
For those who watched the Wimbledon final of 2015, Djokovic wasn’t just better — he was rock solid. Federer started off well, aggressively, hitting forehand winners but it is one thing to serve over 80% first serves (in the first set) against Murray and quite another to do it against Djokovic. Against the world’s best player that number dropped to 59 percent.
It seemed like Federer was a step too late for the entire match (76 percent first serves against Murray for the whole match, slipped to 67 percent against Djokovic; unforced errors went up from 11 to 35; points won on second serve went down from 50 percent to 40 percent; distance covered went up to 3172.3m to 2098.4m). But it didn’t just happen. It was the pressure of having Djokovic at the other end that made this happen; just as once upon a time the pressure of having a Federer or Nadal at the other end made opponents do strange things.
The 7-6 (1), 6-7 (10), 6-4, 6-3 win was a masterclass in controlled tennis. As much as Federer tried, Djokovic kept finding a way to wrest back the initiative and but for the seven squandered set points at the end of the second set, this might have ended much earlier.
Vijay Amritraj, in his commentary, kept saying Djokovic is the fittest player of his generation. But really, there is so much more to him than just fitness or the gluten-free diet. His serve is stronger, his groundstrokes more precise but it is his mind that has made the greatest leap.
Many wondered how he would cope with the loss at the French Open last month against Stan Wawrinka but that, it seems, was never something that worried Djokovic. When he was asked how he would cope with the loss, Djokovic had jokingly said: “Oh, it’s easy, yes, I’ll just go and win Wimbledon.”
While it was always going to be easier to say than to do, Djokovic turned that joke into reality. He showed that it wasn’t about avoiding the fear, it’s was about confronting it. The Federer-Djokovic rivalry which began in 2006 is now dead even at 20 wins apiece. And as things stand, it is increasingly looking like the Serb is going to win this war.
Djokovic’s Grand Slam tally is up to 9 — ahead of the likes of Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl and within striking distance of Bill Tilden (10) and Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver (11 each). He has won at SW19 three times in the last five years. His record for 2015 stands at 48-3. His record in 2014 was 61-8, in 2013 it was 74-9, in 2012 it was 75-12 and in 2011 it was 70-6.
This is greatness in the making or maybe even greatness already but we, blinded by our love for Roger and Rafa, choose to ignore it. But as someone once said, ‘The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance.’
As hard as it may be — Djokovic has moved ahead… to a point where he stands alone at the top. A No.1 without a doubt and whether we like it or not, it is time to accept that we are living in the Djokovic era. The Federer era is over. The Rafa era is over.
We may not know it now but — for a generation that started watching tennis earnestly in 2011 — he will be the greatest modern champion; he will be their Rafa and Roger; a champ without any clear weakness; a champ who never gives up; a champ who is a bonafide great.