Eight years ago Novak Djokovic won the Australian Open as a 20 year old; he had arrived to the big show. The question was could he build on it and continually challenge the Grand Slam monopoly that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had created? The answer was no. In the following 3 years he made only one more Grand Slam final, at the 2010 US Open, losing in 4 sets to Rafael Nadal.
He was continually plagued by physical ailments and early round losses at the Slams. You could say he was beset by what many future champions go through after winning their first Slam, the life change, it comes with the pressure of expectations and trying to replicate past success, its one thing to win a Slam, its a different proposition to win another one, see Andy Roddick.
In 2011 however, he put it all together by winning 10 tournaments including 3 Slams. It was a career-defining season, showing the tennis world he could go from a lone Grand Slam winner to multiple Slam Champion. In the span of 10 months he had put himself in the middle of the Federer/Nadal conversation that he was the player to break the monopoly.
Over the course of the next 3 seasons Djokovic would make another 8 Grand Slam finals, but only winning 3. Boris Becker was brought in during this period, more for the mental aspect of the game, urging Novak to pull the trigger in the big moments and not fall back into rally mode, over time this came to fruition and during the course of the last 5 Grand Slams played Djokovic has won 4 of them, he is in the richest vein of form in his career.
Just this season alone he has won 28 out of 30 matches and within the past month he grabbed the Indian Wells/Miami double, even though he lost early in Monte Carlo this week, he is still the flaming hot favorite to win his first French Open, which starts May the 16th. Consider this, out of all the tournaments he has won in his career all over the world, 6 Australian Opens, 3 Wimbledon’s, 2 US Opens, 5 Indian Wells, 6 Miami Opens, 3 Shanghai Masters and countless others he has never won the French.
He has come close but has lost in the final 3 times. This has become his white whale, his Moby Dick, the event he can’t quite get. We look through all the greats of the past that have that one hole in the illustrious resume’, Pete Sampras never winning the French, Ken Rosewall not getting over the line at Wimbledon, Ivan Lendl couldn’t get it done at the ‘Big W’ and Boris Becker never came close on the red clay in Paris. If Djokovic doesn’t win at Roland Garros next month with the incredible Grand Slam streak he has been on the past 2 years then doubt will really start to creep in that he’ll ever triumph at the French.
Regardless, with his tally now at 11 Slams and in the prime of his career at 28 years old he has put himself into the historical conversation. Lets do the math; arguably the Greatest of All Time Roger Federer has 17 Slams and possibly could get another one before he retires, its doubtful though.
Pete Sampras and Rafael Nadal are next tied on 14, Rafa could grab another one or two French Opens but as his body starts to give in its unlikely. The great Aussie Roy Emerson is next on the list at 12 Slams, and then comes Novak tied with Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver at 11, pretty illustrious company. Considering I’ll give Djokovic another 3 years in his prime before the inevitable drop-off comes, when he hits 31 years of age, that’s 12 more Grand Slam chances he’ll have to add to a tally of 11, lets say he wins half of those which will give him 6 Slams, a distinct possibility, that would tie him with Roger at 17 Slams, putting him into the Greatest of All Time category.
There are a lot of ‘ifs’ and questions in this equation; can he keep up his current form? Can he stay injury free? Can Andy Murray step up his game and be a consistent threat to Djokovic? Will a challenger emerge from the young pack? A Raonic, Dimitrov or Kyrios?
Whatever happens, the next 3 or 4 years will be fascinating for Men’s Tennis. Currently I’d give Novak a 60% chance he could catch Roger, but from here on in every Slam he doesn’t win those odds will diminish, primarily because Father Time will inevitably catch him.