The level of men’s tennis has been exceptionally high over the last decade that there has been a tendency to overlook Novak Djokovic’s achievements.
The bar was set by a certain Roger Federer and, to a lesser extent, Rafael Nadal that Djokovic has had to go to truly stratospheric levels to even be mentioned in the same breath as the two men with 31 Grand Slam singles titles between them.
Yet, as Djokovic starts his assault on 2016 with the same vigour he displayed in 2015, winning three out of the four majors, you could argue that the Serb is not far away from being better than both.
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Greatness is a word used far too frequently in sport when it should be only be lavished upon a select few. However, few would argue that Federer and Nadal are deserving of the moniker.
Djokovic,owing to his attritional style of play and spiky temperament, he has never been as popular with tennis fans or commentators worldwide as the two ‘greats’ that preceded him. Thus, people are slower to credit the Serb, citing Federer’s age and Nadal’s injuries as the reasons for his rise, in a bid to deny him membership of the pantheon.
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However, neither Federer nor Nadal can match Djokovic’s complete domination at their respective peaks.
Like Floyd Mayweather, a criticism often levelled at Djokovic is that he is ‘boring’ and that he depends too heavily on his retrieving abilities, rather than attempting to win points himself. However, like Mayweather, the Serb knows it’s the winning that counts, something that he has become very accustomed to.
The Belgrade native has won 106 of his last 110 matches to date and had a staggering 93.18% win percentage in 2015. This win percentage is second to Roger Federer’s 2006 percentage of 94.84%, achieved in a season lauded as the Swiss’ best ever.
Statistics only tell half the story, however. Djokovic now enters every match he plays expecting - with good reason - to win and holds a positive head-to-head record against all of his rivals. Yet it’s the way that Djokovic beats his opponents that are the most striking element of the Serb’s domination.
Djokovic’s dismantling of Federer in the first two sets of their recent Australian Open semi-final was almost embarrassing for the Swiss, conveying the difference between the two players with stark clarity.
Federer may have won the third set but, for all intents and purposes, the match was practically over within the first hour. Federer has never held a positive record against all of his rivals in his illustrious career and is unlikely to do so now. Whilst Federer has embarrassed many a tennis player in his time, he never had such a hold over his closest rivals - sorry Andy Roddick.
The year of the Serb
So, can Djokovic complete the Slam in 2016? The short answer is yes. The longer answer is yes, maybe.
Djokovic enters the remaining three major tournaments as favourite, and can legitimately expect to win all three. However, as we saw with Stanislas Wawrinka at the French Open in 2015, all it takes is for one player to hit a purple patch and the dream is over. Alternatively, Djokovic can play a bad match, which isn’t as unlikely as it sounds. On his way to winning the 2016 Australian Open Djokovic struggled past Gilles Simon in five sets, hitting 100 unforced errors in the process. Whilst it’s testament to Djokovic’s resoluteness that he prevailed, a player more ruthless than Simon may have vanquished Djokovic on another day.
Yet, you could argue that the Serb raises his level when it really matters, such as in his semi-final with Federer or final with Andy Murray. In fact, there are countless examples of Djokovic raising his level when needed throughout his career, none more well-known than this forehand.
To win all four Grand Slam titles in 2016 Djokovic will need to play at his absolute best for another 63 sets, minimum, and hope that nobody plays better than him for just three. Therefore, it’s testament to Djokovic’s abilities that many are tipping him to achieve the feat this year, in spite of the numbers indicating the unlikeliness of such an event.
Rod Laver, 11-time Grand Slam champion, commented on Djokovic’s chances, saying: “I think someone like Novak is well on his way to trying to accomplish that. He’s going to have a lot of competition, there are a lot of players in there that are just starting to come into their own. I think that will show up through this year. But Novak certainly has a chance to pull off the career Grand Slam.”
Whatever happens in 2016 and beyond, Djokovic must be put in the same bracket as Federer and Nadal. In fact, come the end of 2016, he may be in a bracket of his own.
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