Stranglehold of Nadal, Federer On Men’s Tennis Appears To Have Been Broken by Djokovic
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Has the stranglehold exerted over men’s tennis by Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer finally been broken? Yes. Probably.
The 23 year-old Serb, Novak Djokovic, on Sunday placed the cherry on an 18-match winning streak by defeating world no. 1 Nadal in the final of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. He also overtook Roger Federer (whom he beat in the semi-finals) to become the world’s second-ranked player.
All in all, not a bad Sunday’s work.
Since losing to Federer at the 2010 year-end championship in London, Djokovic has led Serbia to a passionately cherished triumph in the Davis Cup, has won the Australian Open, and has yet to lose a match to anybody. Nadal, the ultimate test, took the opening set in Sunday’s final, but then came increasingly undone in the following two. Djokovic ended up winning in convincing fashion, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, although his success may have partly been due to the Spaniard’s uncharacteristically sloppy afternoon at the service line.
Djokovic stands six foot two inches tall, a lethal human spike topped by a pelt of cropped jet-black hair. Everything about him is spiky – his hair, his features, his limbs, his shots, even his attitude, which is often reminiscent of an increasingly impatient emperor-in-waiting. Djokovic smiles and clowns around and applauds his opponents’ shots more than the other top players, but there is a simmering anger in him as well. His ram-rod posture suggests a corporal as much as an athlete. In the past he has been plagued by nerves, breathing problems, and phantom injuries, while backed by aggressively vocal parents and fans.
Three months ago he seemed less likely to join Nadal and Federer at the summit than the equally talented Andrew Murray of Scotland. But he dispatched the latter with ease in the final of the Australian Open, and now he has both momentum and confidence on his side. The questions is to what extent he will build on it and whether most tennis fans would like him to become the sport’s figurehead, if that is what he is destined to become.
It remains a tremendous task. Between them, Federer and Nadal have occupied the top two spots in tennis with a tenacity that may never be matched, winning 25 of the last 31 majors. They are not only great players, but phenomenally consistent ones as well. Federer, who will turn 30 in August, has 16 Slams (a record), while Nadal, still just 24, has nine. Since 2003, when Federer began his run, only Andy Roddick, Marat Safin, Juan Martin Del Potro, Gaston Gaudio, and Djokovic (twice) have managed to wrest a major from their grasp.
For others in the top ten – Djokovic, Murray (twice bested by Federer in the finals of a Slam), Sweden’s Robin Soderling (a losing finalist at Roland Garros to both Federer and Nadal), America’s courageous also-ran, Andy Roddick, the Czech Thomas Berdych (runner-up to Nadal at last year’s Wimbledon), and various others, many of whom have long faded away, it has been a daunting era in which even to contemplate becoming no. 1. Only the giant Argentinean, Del Potro, managed a clean breakthrough by winning the U.S. Open in 2009, battering Nadal in the semis and outlasting Federer in the final. Unfortunately, he then picked up a wrist injury that sidelined him for a year.
Even if some people believe Nadal and particularly Federer have overstayed their welcome at the top, theirs will be an extremely tough act to follow. Both have redefined the sport in different ways. Can Djokovic do the same? He has all the shots, and he is extraordinarily flexible and quick. But he is neither a particularly charismatic figure nor, in tennis terms, a revolutionary one. Federer made the tennis world swoon with artistry and panache, while Nadal brought it to its feet with competitive ferocity and a stupendous array of spins. It is not clear that Djokovic brings anything genuinely new to the table other than a penchant for pounding his chest and taking his shirt off. At the moment, it would seem that he is simply playing better and more consistent tennis than anyone else. That’s no small thing, but it doesn’t make him the next evolution of the sport.
The best, and most likely outcome for tennis in the next year or two is one in which more players challenge for the major tournaments on a roughly equal footing. Following his third defeat in a Grand Slam final, Murray would appear to be on a psychological time out, but that could turn around at any moment, and on his day he can outfox anyone. Del Potro is already showing signs of storming back to the overpowering form that won him the U.S. Open. Federer is fading, but slowly, and still gathering prize rosebuds while he may. In December, he won the year-end championship for the fifth time, tying the record set by Pete Sampras.
Nadal isn’t going anywhere, although it is not fully apparent whether his ultra-physical game has already exacted a toll on his speed as well as on his knees. Exciting new talents such as Canada’s Milos Raonic (born in Montenegro) and the Ukraine’s Alexandr Dolgopolov hover on the horizon. For Americans, the only item lacking would seem to be a potential world-beater of our own. In the meantime, let us salute Djokovic for finally making a dent in the Nadal-Federer duopoly. Others have tried it, but it looks as if only he has really done it.
Mr. Bernhard is a frequent contributor to The New York Sun.