Novak Djokovic had just won Wimbledon for a fifth time, in an agonizingly intense five-hour classic against Roger Federer. He had saved two match points and survived a final-set tiebreaker. He had lost more points, hit fewer winners and at times appeared to lose his way on Centre Court.
But as he had on so many occasions over the past 10 years, Djokovic found a way to win anyway. The 32-year-old, who has helped stage countless thrillers, described this one as “the most mentally demanding match I was ever part of.”
So what was Djokovic asked afterward? The questions revolved, as they often do with him, around two subjects: (1) How the crowd had been against him; and (2) How he was getting “closer and closer” to “catching” Federer and Rafael Nadal.
The chain of events that day—a Djokovic victory, an audience rooting against him, a media preoccupied with Federer and Nadal—was a pretty good summation of the last decade in men’s tennis. Faced with Federer-loving crowds for so long, the only thing Djokovic could do was trick his mind into believing their cheers were for him.
“When the crowd is chanting ‘Roger,’ I hear ‘Novak,’” Djokovic said with a laugh at Wimbledon. “It’s similar, ‘Ro-ger’ and ‘No-vak.’”
“Unfortunately for Novak, he came along in the era of Nadal and Federer,” Tennis Channel’s Paul Annacone says. “While he has been magnificent, it’s so difficult for him to truly get the credit he deserves.”
There’s a narrow truth to the notion that Djokovic is “catching up” to Roger and Rafa. Yes, he trails them in tennis’ most high-profile stat: major titles—Federer has 20, Nadal 19, Djokovic 16. But our obsession with this race obscures the fact that over the past 10 years, Djokovic has passed his rivals by. Since the start of 2010, Djokovic has won 15 majors, to Nadal’s 13 and Federer’s five.
His combined record against them is 42–25. He has finished five seasons at No. 1, to Nadal’s four (and Federer’s zero). The Serbian set two marks for all-surface excellence that neither Nadal or Federer could match: he became the first man since Rod Laver to win four Grand Slam titles in a row, and became the only man to sweep all four majors and all nine Masters 1000s.
Djokovic’s rise fits neatly into tennis’ last decade. When he broke through at 19 in 2007, he said he expected to be the next world No. 1. His first coach, Jelena Gencic, had told him that was his destiny, and he believed her. By the end of 2010, though, the 23-year-old had yet to make good on that brash prediction. He had spent four seasons ranked No. 3—behind Roger and Rafa.
Finally, in 2010, he escaped their shadows by leading Serbia to its first Davis Cup, in Belgrade. Instead of being the spoiler, Djokovic was the hero. Instead of playing second fiddle, he was the conductor. Instead of being rooted against, he had 20,000 fans chanting his name—his real name.
The positive vibes from that triumph carried over to the 2011 Australian Open, which Djokovic won with ease. “After we won the Davis Cup…I was feeling great on the court, just eager to compete,” Djokovic said in Melbourne. “Something switched in my head.”
Something switched in Djokovic’s game, too. He would win his first 41 matches of 2011, and finish the year with three Slams. Over the next nine years, Djokovic would never surrender the No. 1 ranking for long. He would beat Federer in three Wimbledon finals, and he would hand Nadal his only loss all decade at Roland Garros. Players marvel at Djokovic’s ability to blend offense and defense into a seamless, impenetrable whole.
“His movement was what shocked me,” former No. 4 James Blake says. “When I played him, it felt like I was doing a two-on-one drill, and the two were never missing. It didn’t seem possible to get a ball by him, ever.”
“His return is the greatest in the history of tennis,” Jimmy Arias says. “Normally, players fall into one of two categories: defensive returners who put all the balls back in, and aggressive returners who tend to guess. Djokovic is the first player who does both.”
With a plant-based diet and a commitment to meditation and visualization, Djokovic is a pioneer when it comes to mental and physical training. He’s won the Laureus Sportsman of the Year Award four times, and he currently heads the ATP Player Council.
So why has the New York Times described Djokovic as “the unloved champion?” Why is Federer deemed “graceful,” while Djokovic must settle for “clinical?” Why is he regarded as a tennis technician, rather than a warrior like Nadal? Why is Djokovic derided for “wanting to be loved?” Is there an athlete, or a person, who doesn’t?
Maybe Djokovic does everything a little too efficiently, without any unneeded flourishes. Maybe it’s because his best shot is his return, which rarely creates highlight-reel winners. Maybe it’s because Federer and Nadal carved up the tennis-fan universe in the middle of the last decade, and there was no room left for anyone else in this one. Or maybe Djokovic’s brassy brand of showmanship—the primal roars, the shredded shirts, the arm flaps, the hands cupped to his ear, the post-match thank you’s from his chest—just leaves old-school tennis fans flat.
Djokovic can only be who he is. As he won Wimbledon this year, he seemed content not to try to win anyone over. There was no fall to the grass or cry of triumph, no attempt to celebrate with the fans who had rooted against him. All he could do was win for himself. As Annacone says, “He’s a champion, pure and simple.”
Djokovic was the best men’s player of the lasts decade; by the end of the next one, we may be calling him the best of all time.