Novak Djokovic is now poised to become the winningest major-tournament player in the history of Open Era men’s tennis. Let’s be honest: Reaching age 32 is no longer the “graybeard” portion of a tennis career, unlike the very early 21st century. Andre Agassi squeezed out every last ounce of his body by the time he was 35 years old. His 2005 U.S. Open final against Roger Federer was his last great hurrah. That was it. That was his last moment on the big stage. The end came just one year later against Benjamin Becker in New York.
Times have changed.
Federer is two years older now than Agassi was in 2006 when he called it quits. No one knows exactly how long Federer wants to play, but at the moment, Federer will certainly play the 2020 season and would very likely play 2021 if only because that would be a farewell season — IF it even is a farewell season. 2021, which would take Federer to his 40th birthday in August of that year, seems to be the earliest Federer might hang up the racquet. If Federer chooses to play longer than that, it certainly seems reasonable to say that he would still be a relevant force — no, not necessarily a favorite to win the big tournaments, but a legitimate threat who might make a semifinal and two other quarterfinals in a season. He would still be in the mix and — with a little luck — could reach a final, most likely at Wimbledon.
Rafael Nadal, for all of his knee problems, held up well at Wimbledon each of these past few years. He has become a better tennis player in recent years and has won Roland Garros three years in a row after his desert wilderness period of 2015 and 2016. All the fears about his career running out of steam at age 33 have not been justified. I and a lot of other pundits got this part wrong about Rafa. He has defied the injuries, the interruptions, and the overall wear and tear to remain a top-two tennis player. If he wants to continue playing, it appears he can… and when I refer to “continue playing,” I am not merely referring to the basic act of playing, but to the larger reality of being elite at the highest level of competition. Rafa can be that player if he wants to continue living the life of a tennis professional.
Longevity has been redefined by the Big 3. In this context, if Federer can be this relevant as he approaches 38, and Rafa can be this vital and formidable at 33, Novak Djokovic could be even more enduring and prosperous than Fedal, which is the theme this Wimbledon underscored.
It’s not as though Federer is a bum or Rafa is a slacker at the majors — they have combined to win 38 major titles between them — but Djokovic really is in great position to pass them both. It is a debatable point, to be sure, but I have very little doubt now that Djokovic, after his Sunday win over Federer from two match points down, is going to continue to rack up hardcourt majors and bag a few more Wimbledons. Rafa should win at least one more Roland Garros title if not three, but Djokovic has won four of five majors after his own wilderness period.
With the ATPNextGen struggling to merely reach major QUARTERFINALS, let alone finals; with Dominic Thiem not yet proving that he can make semifinals at the non-French Open majors; AND with Juan Martin del Potro, a U.S. Open stalwart, out for this upcoming major in New York, it is almost certain that the Big 3 will bag another title. Djokovic is clearly the favorite among the group.
Maybe Nadal or Federer will have something to say about the 2019 U.S. Open, but let’s wind the clock forward to the 2021 U.S. Open and 2022 Australian Open. When Federer is 40 and Djokovic is 34, Djokovic is very likely to maintain a late-career prime period while Federer ages out and Nadal’s attritional style of tennis is less conducive to two-week hardcourt runs. Djokovic’s fitness training and overall commitment to a flexible, elastic body should keep him at the top of the sport for several more years.
It is all lining up for him to be the major title winner.
With this in mind, we have to look back — not just forward — in expressing fresh appreciation of how the landscape of the story of tennis has changed.
These events were powerful and important before, but they are even more powerful and important now: The 2010 U.S. Open and 2014 Wimbledon have become even more significant stories in the Open Era portion of men’s tennis history.
I wrote about the 2014 Wimbledon final last year as part of Tennis With An Accent’s Open Era at 50 series.
I then touched on the 2014 final in my immediate reaction to Djokovic’s 2019 win over Federer on Sunday.
Since this was a Wimbledon final we just watched on Sunday, comparisons to another Wimbledon final are a lot easier to tap into. Therefore, I need to offer a few words — not a lot, but some — on the role of the 2010 U.S. Open in reshaping tennis history.
It is true that Djokovic didn’t fully begin to become a giant in men’s tennis — the best player in the world, evolving into by far the best player of this decade — until his brilliant 2011 season. That is when all the lessons Djokovic learned in his early 20s at the feet of Fedal began to be applied on a regular basis.
Yet, before Djokovic began to apply all those lessons — with relentless consistency and dependability — he had to go through graduate school and make sure he owned complete knowledge of his subject matter.
That graduate school was the 2010 U.S. Open. It contained three graduate-school seminars, or — if you prefer — three dissertations or thesis papers (or one of each). After that tournament, Djokovic became a completely different player at the majors. It really is his before-and-after moment, the “birth of Christ” moment in his career.
Before the 2010 U.S. Open, Djokovic made quite a lot of semifinals at the majors, but the occasional quarterfinal exit was still a part of his reality. He rarely made major finals. His Australian Open title in 2008 did not lead to a flood of subsequent finals and titles, unlike Federer’s 2003 Wimbledon title or Nadal’s 2005 Roland Garros championship. Both Federer (in 2004) and Nadal (in 2006) made multiple major finals in the year following their first major championship. Djokovic did not make a major final in the next 10 majors following his win in Australia in 2008. He was a man in search of a higher level, in search of the competitive formula which would enable him to stand alongside the Fedal Axis on even terms, not as a clear third wheel in the Big 3.
When he fell behind two sets to one and then by a break in the fourth set to Viktor Troicki in round one of the 2010 U.S. Open, it was easy and natural to think that Djokovic wasn’t about to turn the corner.
Yet, he found a way to escape that match. He gave himself a chance to continue to play his way into form. He gave himself a chance to stick around in this tournament, and to play Roger Federer for the fourth straight year at the U.S. Open.
They had met the previous three years in New York, once in a final and twice in the semis. Federer won three times, claiming nine of 10 sets played. The most recent meeting entering 2010 had been the 2009 semifinal in which Federer hit his amazing tweener winner on the next to last point of the match. Federer was still rolling along, and Djokovic was still looking for a transformative moment in his career.
What happened in the 2010 U.S. Open semifinals resonates more strongly than ever before: That was the first of now THREE times that Djokovic saved two match points in a major semifinal or final against Federer.
Back then, nine years ago, Djokovic didn’t know entirely what he was capable of, but as soon as he saved those match points and then beat Federer, 7-5 in the fifth, after being down two sets to one, it was as though the light went on. Djokovic didn’t beat Nadal in the final, but he played Rafa well. Rafa played about as well as he ever has played at that tournament. Djokovic took a set off him. It was almost as impressive as beating Federer.
Djokovic did gain newfound respect from the tennis community that day, and it did seem likely that he was going to improve and start winning some big titles. Yet, who knew just how dramatically that tournament would set the stage for everything which has happened in the next nine years, most specifically the ability to win matches against Federer after saving match points late in a major?
2014 Wimbledon. The 2010 U.S. Open. Those tournaments already owned a very prominent place in Novak Djokovic’s career and the Open Era story of tennis before 2019 Wimbledon. Now, their places in those same stories have grown to an exponential degree.
2010 in New York is when — and where — the light really went on for Djokovic. 2014 at Wimbledon — after some struggles in major finals in 2012 and 2013 — was Djokovic’s second beginning.
The rest, as they say, is history.