Novak Djokovic could be a bus driver just as much as a professor. Either way, he took David Goffin to school on Wednesday in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. None of this was surprising. None of this was unexpected. Yet, that shouldn’t diminish the impressive nature of Djokovic’s feat.
We expect so much from the Big 3 not just because of their remarkable results, but because of the presence they display on court which makes us more cognizant of how hard it is for the rest of the tour to measure up. We don’t merely expect the Big 3 to PLAY better; we expect the Big 3 to COMPETE better when the going gets tough. We expect the Big 3 to THINK better in complicated situations. We expect the Big 3 to RESPOND better when going through a rough patch of play. All the challenges of tennis have been mastered by the Big 3 to the extent that failure against a non-Big 3 opponent (with the possible exception of Dominic Thiem at Roland Garros, or Juan Martin del Potro at the U.S. Open) is not given serious consideration.
Djokovic made this quarterfinal look easy, but it is well worth remembering that Goffin started this match on fire, playing the first seven games as well as he reasonably could play them.
To put the matter differently, Goffin wasn’t intimidated at the start. At the very beginning of a match, some players are nervous and never get out of the starting blocks, but Goffin made that underdog’s charge, bursting from the locker room with vibrance and hope.
It was only after he surrendered a break at *4-3 in the first set that Goffin crumbled. Djokovic’s presence and his awareness of the moment broke him down into fine powder.
When so many tennis players shrink, the Big 3 rise.
Goffin has tasted this many times before against the Big 3. In that sense, his encounter with Djokovic was not new.
Yet, in one very specific and important way, this WAS new for Goffin: This was his first major quarterfinal against a Big 3 opponent.
That is a different beast.
Goffin made the 2016 Roland Garros quarterfinals and lost to Dominic Thiem. He made the 2017 Australian Open quarterfinals and lost to Grigor Dimitrov. Goffin hadn’t had this baptism by fire… which brings up a point one cannot stress enough in the Big 3 era, a time in which other tennis players so rarely climb past the Djokovices, Nadals and Federers:
Players need to accumulate experiences against the Big 3 in major quarterfinals in order to learn how to beat them in major tournaments. You can’t expect to suddenly encounter these situations and get them right the first — or second, or even third — time. One might have to lose four or five times to these elites before arriving at a moment when everything can fit together well.
Goffin’s age: 28.5 years old.
This is the lesson I wrote about earlier at Wimbledon: The ATPNextGen (or NextGin, with all the alcohol their fans have consumed this tournament) must get to major quarterfinals against the Big 3.
No, I wouldn’t expect the NextGen to win these encounters at the 2019 U.S. Open or at any point in 2020, but if the NextGen can spend the 2020 season reaching major quarterfinals against the Big 3, the 2021 season could realistically become a turning point. I wouldn’t EXPECT it, but it would at least be possible.
As long as the NextGen — or anyone else, such as Goffin — isn’t creating more of these learning experiences against the Big 3 in the second weeks of majors, the chances of a coup on the ATP Tour remain minimal.
This is the lesson Novak Djokovic taught David Goffin, and younger male tennis players, on Wednesday inside Centre Court.