Matt Zemek

So, what’s going to happen at the U.S. Open? It’s an interesting question. It’s a question on many tennis fans’ minds.

It is also a question which can wait a few days. The tennis world needs to stop, breathe, and take in the enormity of what Novak Djokovic achieved in Cincinnati this past week.

No matter what label you apply — or prefer — in response to Djokovic’s completion of the set of nine Masters 1000 tournaments, this is a big deal. Moreover, what Ivan Lendl did in the Super 9 series doesn’t diminish Djokovic’s feat, either.

Here is the bottom-line reality for Djokovic and his fans — and it is not hyperbole or embellishment to point it out: He now has two crown jewel tennis achievements Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal lack, which flow into more historical milestones and markers which give Nole a unique place in tennis history.

Djokovic had the four straight major championships in his “Novak Slam” from 2015 Wimbledon through 2016 Roland Garros. Now he has the full set of nine Masters titles after finally tucking away his first Cincinnati crown with a straight-set thumping of Federer on Sunday in Ohio. When one also includes the ATP Finals, Djokovic has won each of the 14 most important singles tournaments in men’s tennis. (People will also note his Davis Cup crown — that isn’t a singles tournament, but it is an important tennis event in its own right, so if you wanted to say he has the 15 most important tournaments in men’s tennis, you would be right.)

You might be thinking, “This sounds an awful lot like the run-up to a relitigation of the GOAT debate. Please, Matt, no, NO! For the love of God, NOOOOOOO!”

No — that isn’t coming just around the bend. I’m not going to lead you down that familiar rabbit hole. What I am going to do, though, is pause and emphasize, firmly but gently, that when one discusses all-time great athletes, a central component of their greatness lies precisely in their ability to do things their fabled peers did not.

Djokovic — who became an extremely formidable clay-court player at the start of this decade, great enough to eventually overtake Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo, Madrid, Rome, and Roland Garros — has forged his most profound career revivals and moments of redemption on grass at Wimbledon. Djokovic’s all-surface completeness and versatility have been proven and reaffirmed time and time again. It is fitting in a very real way that he notched this Masters 1000 achievement, a testament to a supreme ability to win anywhere and on any surface. Yes, a part of Djokovic’s achievement — getting to this Masters finish line before Federer or Nadal (Federer will never get there; Nadal still might, but autumn hardcourts will never make a lot of sense for Rafa to play in the remaining years of his career) — was out of his immediate control. Rafa had to frustrate and defeat Federer in multiple Monte Carlo and Rome finals. Stan Wawrinka had to foil Federer in the 2014 Monte Carlo final. Nevertheless, Djokovic defeated both Nadal and Federer in Rome finals. He has been there to defeat Nadal and Federer to an extent no one else has, and no one else will. He still had to walk over the hot coals of pressure and turn his uncertain self — in August of 2010 — into the man who has been the best male tennis player of this calendar decade.

Djokovic’s achievement — recorded against Federer in the Cincinnati final — powerfully reaffirms the simple fact that he walked into the teeth of the Fedal axis and conquered it. Once upon a time, he had been whipped by both men. In Federer’s case, the five years of experience Federer had surely enabled the Swiss to benefit in early-stage meetings on the biggest stages. When Djokovic entered his mid-20s prime, the equation changed. That rivalry is more a case of each man prevailing in his respective prime. It is against Nadal in which Djokovic authored the even more spectacular turnaround — not just the reversal of a losing trend against Rafa, but more precisely, being able to solve Nadal in clay Masters 1000 events, unlocking the door Federer rarely could — in Hamburg and Madrid, yes, but not in Monte Carlo or Rome, and not in the major-tournament crucible of Paris.

Djokovic has walked through doors and tasted victories his two fabled rivals have not. This hardly resolves or ends the question of who is the greatest in this Golden Era of the Big 3, but it certainly adds another notch to Djokovic’s belt.

The U.S. Open can wait. Cincinnati has been bagged with signature Djokovician resilience and staying power, outlasting talented opponents on his less-than-spectacular days at the work office, only to then bust out the vintage wine and the flowing A-game in the championship match against Federer, a familiar formula which recalls the 2014 and 2015 Wimbledon finals plus the 2015 U.S. Open final, among other occasions.

I felt that by losing early in Canada, Djokovic had given himself a chance to win in Cincinnati, but I also doubted Djokovic for the simple reason that he had to win six matches instead of five to take home this elusive title. Six matches later, Djokovic has very swiftly reminded the world what has made him so great: He is extremely hard to beat even on days when he struggles and goes through rough patches. Only the foremost icons of tennis establish themselves at such a great height and make themselves such tough outs in tournaments. When Djokovic then raises his game to it foremost ceiling, fuhgeddaboudit.

What’s the word for such a player? Champion is one, but I have another one in mind: Master.

Master of Nine, in Cincinnati and eight other world cities.

Image – Aditya Prabhakar(Tennis with an Accent)


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