by Matt Zemek
One man winning one tennis tournament at the start of 2018 would not be the greatest story ever told, not in a world of life and death, of harsh truths and far greater consequences than any outcome in any sporting event. Allow for a little literary embellishment.
Yet, even the most rabid Roger Federer fan or the most devoted Rafael Nadal fan would have to admit: Yes, if Novak Djokovic wins the 2018 Australian Open, it would be one hell of a story.
Nadal has won tournaments after injuries multiple times. His ability to absorb an injury — with its mental effects, not just its physical diminishments and interruptions — and overcome it on multiple occasions is part of what makes him such a remarkable athlete. Few athletes have succeeded more richly in spite of numerous significant injuries.
Last year, Roger Federer came back from the first major injury of his career. He was seeded 17th at the Australian Open. No one knew what to expect, but the idea that he was in prime position to win major title No. 18 was not at the forefront of most minds. It was a back-burner thought, the kind of notion which isn’t excluded from the room, but is shoved toward the back of the line. Yes, Federer is FEDERER, the man called the Maestro and the King and the Tennis God by his most adoring fans, but he is still flesh and blood. He was still 35 years old. He still hadn’t won a major since July of 2012 at Wimbledon. He still hadn’t beaten Rafael Nadal in a five-set match since 2007 — TEN YEARS!
The idea that Federer would slash and chop his way through a gauntlet of Berdych (third round), Kei Nishikori (fourth), Stan Wawrinka (semifinals), and Nadal (final), winning the ultimate collision with Rafa in five sets, AFTER falling behind by a break in that last stanza, was too outrageous to take seriously. Come on, that’s a Hollywood fantasy, not a scenario grounded in reality…
… except that’s EXACTLY what happened in Melbourne 12 months ago.
Even if you were a diehard Djokovic fan, you had to acknowledge: Yeah, that’s pretty special — not an ordinary everyday feat.
This next week, the second week of the 2018 Australian Open, Djokovic can write a story every bit as amazing… and preposterous… and magical.
The Serbian superstar is coming off the most significant injury of his career. Djokovic isn’t seeded 17, as Federer was last year in Australia, but close enough: 14. He won’t play Kei Nishikori in round four, but he could have to go through fifth-seeded Dominic Thiem (quarterfinals), followed by Federer (semis) and Nadal (final).
If Djokovic wins, after his struggle in the heat with Gael Monfils; after his medical timeout against Albert Ramos-Vinolas in the third round; and after his very limited amount of match play in the two warm-up weeks before the Australian Open, he will have conquered a litany of doubts and shattered a legion of demons. In a Golden Era of men’s tennis when the Big Three have constantly said to each other, “Anything you can do I can do better,” a Djokovic triumph in Australia would represent one big, bold, brassy statement of authority: “You thought last year was incredible, Roger? TOP THIS!”
Djokovic would join Federer and Nadal as an injury-recovery artist par excellence, owning the ability to claim that he can bounce back from prolonged hardship as well as the next (iconic) guy.
The significance of a Djokovic championship would go far beyond major No. 13, which would put Nole one title behind Pete Sampras. The meaning of the moment would come in the fact that Djokovic would have done something extraordinary, on par with his two great rivals — maybe even better than Fedal. That’s how a gigantic legacy gets built. Djokovic has already built so much of one, but much as Federer and Nadal keep finding ways to raise the bar, Djokovic could do the same with a title in Melbourne.
The second week of a major always focuses the eyes and whets the appetite of tennis fans and historians, but Novak Djokovic is playing for so much more than one championship this week. He is playing for another dimension of iconic significance.
It would make one helluva story.
Now let’s see if Djokovic can author it.
We’ll be watching… and reading.