Novak Djokovic’s story is one everyone should adore—and at last, after years of toiling behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal , Djokovic is beginning to feel the love. He will never be Federer, the Michelangelo of tennis for aficionados, a player whose grace and prodigious talent have made him perhaps the most popular athlete in the world.
He will never be Nadal, a formidable bundle of muscle and energy, a child’s favourite cartoon hero brought to life. But Djokovic—27 years old, No. 1 in the world, recently married, now a father and more in control of his destiny than ever before—still has a chance to go down in history as their equals, or more.
“He’s so good, he might even be better than the other two,” says Mats Wilander, a former world No. 1. “When he’s feeling it and he’s on and he’s fighting, it’s nearly impossible to beat him. You can’t get the ball through him. Federer and Nadal have people who they don’t necessarily like to play against. Djokovic, I don’t see a player that he minds playing.”
Djokovic has won each of the four Grand Slam tournaments except the French Open, where he has lost in two finals—both to Nadal, who has won the event a record nine times. Federer and Nadal have both won all four major titles.
Djokovic trails far behind them in the sport’s measuring stick for superiority—after his victory at this year’s Australian Open, he’s won eight majors, to Nadal’s 14 and Federer’s 17—but Wilander expects Djokovic to win at least six or seven more. Djokovic is chasing something larger. He knows he can win. But he also knows he has yet to earn universal respect.
“For me it’s more important for [people] to remember me as a human being, as somebody that has carried himself in the right way in every aspect of his tennis career,” he says. “There’s more to it than just winning a trophy.”
Djokovic’s game isn’t as flashy as the legends he is chasing. Federer has versatility and grace—his slightest movements have a precision that befits his Swiss heritage. Nadal, from the island of Mallorca in Spain, hits his left-handed forehand with so much spin that the ball crashes to the court as if dropped from a blimp.
Djokovic’s tennis trademark is not a single shot, but his body. Wiry. Flexible. Fast. Tireless.
Always balanced. Djokovic, 6-foot-2, slides on gritty hard courts as smoothly as he might slalom on the snowy slopes of Kopaonik (he is from a family of skiers). He is a human rubber band. “He should be in Cirque du Soleil,” says Larry Stefanki, a retired pro who has coached John McEnroe and Andy Roddick. “He’s hyper, hyper flexible. His body type, for me, is perfect for tennis.”
Federer and Nadal, and the reverence they have earned, may well be out of Djokovic’s reach. But it’s too soon to discount his chances. The more absurd the goal, the more determined Djokovic becomes. In what many consider the greatest era in the history of tennis, he has already done what few believed he would.
He learned how to beat Federer. He solved Nadal. “Those two guys,” Djokovic said at a press conference last fall, “made me a stronger player. Made me realize what I need to do to improve.”
He has beaten them both in Grand Slam finals, beaten them both in the same Grand Slam tournament. He took the No. 1 ranking from them, lost it and then took it back. He speaks of possibilities, not limits.
He is still that little boy living in a mountain town, no longer naive, yet unfailingly optimistic. And he plans to stick around for a long time.
“I’m blessed to be able to play this sport, and I’m very grateful for everything that I have achieved so far,” he says. “I still feel like there are many years in my legs.” Read more…