By Matt Zemek
The Big 3 have all redefined what is possible in tennis.
Roger Federer reached 23 straight major semifinals and 18 finals in a sequence of 19 major tournaments in his prime.
Rafael Nadal has won 13 Roland Garros championships and has stacked up double-digit title numbers at several different clay-court tournaments.
Yet, if you had to pick one Big 3 player who is redefining the realm of what is possible more than the other two, it’s Novak Djokovic.
Please remember this: Saying that Player A is doing more than Player B or C is not an indictment of B or C. Such a statement merely magnifies what Player A is doing.
Djokovic is the A player — more like the A-plus player — who not only aces every important exam, but gets bonus points on his report card because of the extra credit he is earning for going above and beyond the call.
There is always something extra in a Djokovic major championship these days. That’s not a cute one-liner which is meant to sound impressive, but is merely “word fluff” with no real substance or heft. It’s not a vague statement meant to flatter or inflate an ego.
It’s a real, truthful, fact-based statement.
Djokovic’s wins might seem obvious, automatic, or ordinary, but they’re anything but… and his French Open title won over Stefanos Tsitsipas is no exception.
Djokovic versus Nadal is a big and contentious rivalry. Djokovic versus a bright mid-afternoon sun is another one. Djokovic might have been drained a little bit by playing Rafa in a 4-hour, 11-minute semifinal, but he also seemed affected by the pounding sun, even though the actual temperature was roughly 80 degrees Fahrenheit in Paris, not the 95-degree broiler we sometimes see in Melbourne, or the suffocatingly high humidity we sometimes see in New York for the U.S. Open. Djokovic was holding a cold towel close to his face on changeovers in the first two sets. He was suffering. He wasn’t hitting through the court. Tsitsipas was not only outdoing him in rallies; the Greek was winning rallies without having to play risky low-margin shots on most occasions. A solid, heavy, deep forehand was enough to gain leverage in most of the first two sets, the second set in particular.
We know that Djokovic was able to close this match out in a fifth set played in the shady conditions he loves. He no longer had to wear a cap or put a cold towel to his face. His level of relaxation in that final set was pronounced and visible.
Yet, Djokovic had to win sets three and four in that same pounding sun… and his ability to outlast Tsitsipas in the 2-1 game of the third set — the turning point of the match — once again manifested Nole’s capacity to rescue his game and his body in the worst, most dire, most seemingly difficult situations imaginable.
That’s the thing with Novak Djokovic, is it not? There is no situation too grim for Nole, no predicament he can’t dig out of. This is the “something extra” he brings to the majors these days.
He saved the two championship points against Federer at Wimbledon. He saved the two break points late in the fifth against Nadal in the 2018 Wimbledon semifinals. He was in great pain and discomfort in Melbourne this year. He was down a break in the third and fourth sets in the quarterfinals against Alexander Zverev, after having to survive physically demanding matches against Taylor Fritz (a 5-setter in the third round) and Milos Raonic (a former major finalist and not exactly a tomato can in the fourth round).
Djokovic was down two sets to one to Dominic Thiem at the 2020 Australian Open. It didn’t matter. Nole had a plan for that.
Djokovic was down two sets to Lorenzo Musetti at this Roland Garros tournament. It didn’t matter. Nole found his path out of peril.
These are not routine progressions to the championship victory stand. Djokovic has had to meet or overcome a very stiff test at some point along the way in nearly all of his seven majors won since his reemergence from injury/recovery at Wimbledon in 2018.
All of this is “extra,” but it doesn’t even tell the full story.
Djokovic is winning these majors with “something extra” at a point in time after which Pete Sampras — owner of 14 major titles — had already retired.
Pete Sampras won his 14th and last major title in September of 2002, just one month after turning 31. Djokovic’s 2018 Wimbledon title was won two months after turning 31. Djokovic has therefore won seven majors in his career after Sampras’s retirement point.
Djokovic has won HALF of Pistol Pete’s major title haul AFTER the point in time when Sampras called it a career.
That’s INSANE… and it is precisely what I mean when I say Djokovic is redefining what is possible in men’s tennis.
Get this: Djokovic — if he wins four more majors — will match Bjorn Borg’s and Rod Laver’s major title counts after the Serb turned 31. Imagine that: After turning 31, a player could match two legends of the game, not even counting what he did before turning 31.
If Federer redefined tennis early in his career, and Nadal redefined tennis in the middle of his career (specifically at Roland Garros), Djokovic is doing so in the latter part of his career.
You know how the old saying goes, right?
He who laughs last laughs best. Novak Djokovic is getting the final say — and the last laugh — in the Big 3 conversation… at least right now.
That certainly qualifies as “something extra,” oui?