Novak Djokovic's aura in 2021 is something that tennis has never seen before
Pretty much all the way until the last match, Novak Djokovic was set to achieve the Calendar Slam, which has not been won since 1988 (when Steffi Graf completed a Golden Slam). The murmurs, the drama, the build-up that began post Wimbledon about him winning the Golden Slam—and then the Calendar Slam after his exit at the Olympics—is something tennis has not experienced in so many years. It’s one of the most astonishing things out there, because it’s so rare, men or women. Serena Williams was close and Novak himself has been close before, but not as close as this.
Not only did he have this great year where he was one match away from history, but he actually lost very little. Just seven matches till date. Even in that Olympic semi-final against Alexander Zverev he was up a set and a break, and Novak against anybody in that position doesn’t generally lose. Go back a couple of months ago when he was 2-0 down against Stefanos Tsitsipas in the French Open final. I was looking at a few tweets, and nobody thought he would lose even from there.
When you watch Novak nowadays, you expect him to be dialed in, to play as close to perfection as it can get. Take some of the past champions: Roger Federer was never the all-out favourite on clay although he was one of the best. Go back further to the era of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi and even those guys had a few bad matches a year. Novak doesn’t look like he’s going to lose a match, and on all surfaces. The kind of aura that he carried in 2021 is, for me, something that tennis has never seen before. Sure, Roger had it, but in a different way.
I was talking to a few of the current pros on the Tour, and the thing that makes Novak so good compared to some of the other greats is his ability to hurt you from any part of the court. You can go out there and hit a great first serve, and he can probably get it back to a position where he can either hurt you or hurt you in the next shot. Some of the other guys had obvious patterns. With Novak, you can’t really attack certain parts of the court because of his agility, flexibility and ability to hit in an open stance sliding on both sides and yet stay in balance. It’s also futile to wait and defend, because, well, you simply can’t out-rally him and he also has the ability to attack from both sides. And then as the guy grows in confidence, the options open up, like his drop shots on the backhand side where the feel is amazing. One of his most underrated weapons is his serve. All these things make it possible for him to play big-time tennis when it matters most, and consistently.
I played him once on the Tour in 2013 in Miami. Even back then, he was really good. I felt like around that time, though, he did have one or two losses that were very unlike what you see currently. The narrative has shifted to a stage now where if Novak is feeling it, you’re not going to win. That’s one of the most devastating feelings as a tennis player.
However, I remember Novak from a little bit further back. This is 2009, a time when I was training with Andy Roddick. His head-to-head is 5-4 against Novak, and he had a very good record against him early in his career. This was a period Novak had these breathing issues, would retire often and get tired quite a bit playing five-setters. I remember Andy mentioning these things when we were training together. They faced each other on a really, really hot day in the Australian Open quarter-finals. I recollect Andy being happy that they were playing during the day, because I knew the kind of training sessions that we had in the 2009 pre-season. As the match wore on, it gradually drifted towards being a physical battle. Andy lost the first set in a tie-breaker, won the next two 6-4, 6-2, and then Novak called a trainer. Soon enough, he retired.
At that time, he was 21. What’s crazy is that at 34, the guy is so much fitter. That tells you about the level of commitment he has towards his profession. People used to make fun of his gluten-free diet and you’d read all sorts of crazy things he does with his sleeping patterns and what he’s trying to do with oxygen and stuff like that. But as a player and as a peer—I know the Serbian guys well and I’ve spent some time with Novak as well—I know he leaves no stone unturned in trying to find every little edge. If that means that he feels he’s going to get better by having this diet, by sleeping at this time, by having these people around him, by doing these exercises and drills, he’s going to do it. And the proof lies in the pudding, really.
Throughout his career, he has had several aspects of his game that people would have considered a weakness. What stands out the most about Novak is his ability to turn his weakness into strength. Rewind a decade, and the three things that you could say are potential weaknesses of Novak were his serve, fitness and his mental ability to stay with it and not lose focus. For the entire tennis world, it’s easy to see now that each of these things is his strength. Not just strength; for me, his mental toughness is one of the greatest weapons that our sport has ever seen.
Things like the Sampras serve, the Agassi return, the Rafa Nadal forehand and fight, the Roger flair are very easy to notice. With Novak, we have seen him evolve over the years into a better player and an even better player and still continue to improve. From the outside it may look like a smooth journey, but I’m sure the guy has gone from hell and back a few times, most recently in 2017 with the elbow injury.
The kind of record that he started off with against Rafa and Roger—especially in the big matches—was not the best. Now, he has dominant numbers over both. Mind you, it’s probably not easy being the least liked amongst the biggest global stars in the game. I’m not saying that he’s not liked, but among Rafa and Roger and Novak, he’s probably the least liked. But he has accepted it, overcome it, and turned it into a positive. To have that ability is very inspiring. You can read about it in philosophy books and talk to people about it, but all you need to do is see Novak.
Is there any limit to the Djokovic juggernaut? I don’t want to be foolish and say that he’s going to stop any time soon. If you had asked me 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that he’s going to be fitter at 34 than at 24. From his interviews and knowing the man a little bit myself, I feel like in his mind it seems clear that he is out there for the history books. Right now, he’s stuck at 20 Grand Slams with Rafa and Roger. I believe when it’s all said and done, he will have the most Grand Slams and will probably be considered the greatest player to have ever played the game. I think that’s his goal. And he’s well on his way to achieving it.
Somdev Devvarman, Novak Djokovic’s contemporary, is India’s former No. 1 tennis player. He spoke with Rutvick Mehta.