Gardner Variety: the Djoker’s wild
Novak Djokovic is an absolute beast on the tennis court.
Seriously, he’s tearing the ATP Tour apart right now.
The 32-year-old Serbian has started off the season 21-0. Three tournaments entered, three more championships, including another grand slam at the Australian Open in January. I’d be surprised if he didn’t need at least two rooms for his 79 championship trophies at this point.
Djokovic undoubtedly possesses one of the most complete games in men’s tennis. He’s arguably the greatest returner in the history of a sport.
He can effortlessly chase down anything his opponents throw at him, causing them to have to hit three or four additional shots just secure a single point. I can only imagine the futility some players must feel knowing they just hit a shot that would have a winner against 95 percent of the players on the tour only to have it returned with interest.
For years, Djokovic toiled as he watched Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal dominate grand slams.
There was no doubting his talent. He was clearly the world’s third-best player, having reached 13 quarterfinals and eight semifinals in the 16 grand slams between 2007 and 2010.
In fact, from 2007-08, Djokovic was 1-6 against Federer and Nadal at the slams and 36-1 against everyone else.
He won his first grand slam title at the Australian Open in 2008, but many began to wonder if he was, perhaps, a one-hit wonder — a player content with having etched his name in tennis history with a slam on his resume.
Making matters worse, Djokovic clearly began to slow down in 2009. He retired from his Australian Open match with Andy Roddick due to exhaustion and was knocked out early at Wimbledon and the French Open.
He would make the semis at the U.S. Open, but the whispers of failed opportunities and a declining passion for the game were growing.
Then, there was 2011. That was the year we truly met the Djoker.
He started off that year on an incredible 43-match win streak – one win shy of John McEnroe’s all-time record — that saw him take home his second Australian Open title and defeat Nadal in two consecutive finals.
He would go on to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, joining only a handful of players who have won three slams in a year.
We would see little change over the course of the following 10 seasons. Djokovic has won six more Australian Open titles, four more Wimbledon crowns, a maiden French Open title completing the career grand slam, and two U.S. Open trophies.
Djokovic has 17 grand slam titles now, closing the gap between Nadal’s 19 and Federer’s record 20, but there’s something different about the Djoker. Where Federer and Nadal grew up outside the grasp of poverty, Djokovic was raised in war-torn Serbia.
At the age of six, Djokovic and his family would spend hours in their basement every night for months due to the persistent bombings in his native town of Belgrade. In fact, one of the first tennis courts Djokovic would practice on wasn’t a tennis court at all. It was a drained swimming pool with a rope strung across to serve as a net.
Djokovic has since stated the hardships of war drove him to pursue tennis with an even greater determination, something quite evident in his game both on and off the court.
I used to wonder what sort of player Djokovic would have been if he had been born outside the Federer-Nadal era. I would ask myself how many grand slam titles he would have won had he began playing 10 years before or after.
That’s not the case anymore.
Now, I’m asking myself how many grand slams Federer and Nadal would have won had it not been for the Djoker.
Wesley Gardner can be reached at email@example.com.