All hail Novak Djokovic, king of anti-tennis

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On Sunday, July 11, Novak Djokovic won his sixth Wimbledon title, cruising to a four-set victory over the young Italian Matteo Berrettini. It was the 34-year-old’s 20th Grand Slam title, bringing him into a three-way tie with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most all-time. Given Djokovic’s relatively young age (Federer is 39, Nadal 35), his impressive fitness, his unparalleled mental strength, and his dominance on hard court and grass, the surfaces on which three of the four Slams are played, he is likely to finish with several more.

But even if his career ended tomorrow, Djokovic would have a convincing case for being considered the best tennis player of all time. He has spent the most consecutive weeks ranked No. 1, is tied with Pete Sampras for the most year-end No. 1s, and is the only player to win every Grand Slam tournament at least twice. If he wins the U.S. Open later this summer, and he likely will, he will not only have the most majors of all time but become the first player since Rod Laver to win all four in a single year. Perhaps most important for his legacy, he has a winning record against both Nadal (30-28) and Federer (27-23), including a 4-1 record against Federer in Grand Slam finals (losing only their first meeting, at the 2007 U.S. Open) and two victories against Nadal, the greatest clay-court player in history, at the French Open, including in this year’s semi-final.

He is also, for the most part, unloved. Crowds cheer against him, especially when he plays other members of the “Big Three.” I am guilty of this myself. I find Djokovic boring and tend to pull for whoever happens to be playing him on a given day. Federer is my favorite and, in my estimation, the most beautiful player ever to pick up a racket. When he’s on, his game is like a work of art: aggressive yet cerebral and balletic, with a perfect mix of delicate touch and fluid power. Nadal is more of a brawler and grinder, but there’s still something appealing, even aesthetic, in his raw athleticism and unconventional style — built around the mind-boggling amount of topspin he applies to his lefty forehand, which he uses to bludgeon his opponents into submission.

Djokovic, by contrast, plays something like anti-tennis. Although he’s recently improved his serve and his volleys and possesses one of the best drop shots in the game, he is fundamentally a conservative, defensive player. His game is built around consistency, a phenomenal return of serve, and an equally remarkable ability to chase down balls that he has absolutely no business getting back in play, forever forcing his opponents to hit one more shot when they think they’ve already got the point won. Although capable of attacking when necessary, he’d much prefer to win points by baiting the other guy into going for too much and either missing or hitting himself into a vulnerable position. Plus, there’s his well-earned reputation as a mental giant, which further ratchets up the pressure on opponents. Half the time, it seems that Djokovic doesn’t really have to do much of anything to win — the other player is so intimidated by the task of not only breaking down the Serb’s defense but also out-Zenning him on the crucial points that his game just falls apart.

This dynamic was painfully evident in what was Djokovic’s toughest test at this year’s Wimbledon, his semi-final match against the young Canadian gunslinger Denis Shapovalov. The far better player for most of the first set, Shapovalov dominated on serve and bullied Djokovic from the baseline, earning an early break that gave him a chance to serve out the set at 5-4. In that game, at 30-30, the Canadian inexplicably sailed an easy put-away long, and then, after fighting back to deuce, made two consecutive backhand errors to hand over the break. Then, in the first-to-seven tiebreak, Shapovalov coughed up five unforced errors before double-faulting on set point (something Dominic Thiem also did against Djokovic in the first set of the 2020 Australian Open final). Djokovic, throughout all of this, hadn’t done much except keep the ball deep and inside the court. One moment he was getting pushed around, the next, he was holding a (for him) commanding one-set lead, and the difference between the two was seemingly all between Shapovalov’s ears.

This is a form of greatness, to be sure. Tennis is an almost cruelly psychological sport, in which, to win, players must continually execute shots — a second serve, a backhand down the line, a forehand to the open court — that they know how to hit in their sleep. The question is whether they can hit these shots repeatedly, under immense pressure, with pride and glory and millions of dollars on the line. As a fan, you (or at least, I ) want to see someone rise to this challenge. It’s what has made Federer such a beloved figure. When he wins, he wins by playing tennis the way you feel it ought to be played: actively, with style and courage and flair, pulling his opponents around the court as if on a string before finishing them off with a baseline winner or volley. He seizes the game.

During a great Djokovic performance, on the other hand, it often looks like the Serb's opponent is trying to climb Everest without oxygen, with Djokovic in the role of mountain, ice, wind, and cold — a passive, inhuman force that will break all but the luckiest and bravest of men. You pull for the human on the other side of the net, but you suspect that, in the end, he doesn’t have it in him. Usually, you are right.

As a fan, I don’t particularly like that Djokovic has proven himself the greatest of all time. It feels, at some level, like an inversion of the “correct” narrative — nature conquering man, rather than the other way around. But one of the great things about tennis, about sports in general, is that it has no obligation to conform to our desires, expectations, or the stories we want to tell. What happens, happens, and fans must deal with it. Djokovic has triumphed, emphatically, in the face of a tennis world that has always wanted to see him fail, and the mental strength and self-belief he has developed in the face of this opposition is without a doubt his greatest asset as a player. That’s a great story in itself, even if it wasn’t the one I was hoping for.

Park MacDougald is Life and Arts editor of the Washington Examiner magazine.

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Tags: Sports, Tennis, Wimbledon, Life

Original Author: Park MacDougald

Original Location: All hail Novak Djokovic, king of anti-tennis