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Australian Open

Novak Djokovic picks peRFect way to surpass Federer

Matt Zemek

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It really is too peRFect. It’s so entirely appropriate for the career Novak Djokovic has fashioned.

At this 2021 Australian Open, Djokovic officially clinched the World No. 1 ranking for a duration of time which will enable him to pass Roger Federer’s all-time mark of 310 weeks.

Djokovic was able to clinch that enormous career milestone while playing through obvious pain and still beating top-20 and top-10 opponents, Milos Raonic and Alexander Zverev. When Rafael Nadal lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas, Djokovic’s No. 1 status — on an all-time scale, in this particular measurement of supremacy — had been secured.

It’s symbolically potent and completely fitting.

Djokovic passed Federer at a tournament when the Serbian superstar was in pain.

What is Djokovic’s career if not a testament to thriving despite discomfort? Djokovic relishes each and every chance he gets to triumph over pain and adversity. He eats difficulty for breakfast. He loves tennis beyond measure… and he loves the challenge of overcoming obstacles more than he loves tennis itself.

In the deep background of Djokovic’s life story — the human layer which exists behind the globally known feats of remarkable tennis achievements — sits the simple but powerful reality that Djokovic grew up in a war-torn part of the world. The Balkan conflicts of the 1990s engulfed Serbia and other parts of what was previously known as Yugoslavia.

Djokovic symbolically rose from the rubble of those conflicts. In real life, he had survived something far more traumatic than a five-setter. He had to overcome life-and-death obstacles — forget about sports — at an early age. Before he became a professional tennis player, he had already seen how powerful outside forces could be. Consequently, he realized how much inner work he would have to do to control the one thing he could control: his own responses.

What was and is true for Novak Djokovic as a human being has become true for him as a tennis player. Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are both extraordinarily great at controlling only what they can control, but one can make the argument that as amazing as those two men are in the competitive art of mental toughness, Djokovic has been slightly better.

The 311-week No. 1 milestone certainly offers weight behind that argument, both symbolic and concrete.

The fact that Djokovic clinched this “311” feat while playing hurt — and still winning hurt, in matches which eclipsed three hours against seeded opponents at a major — is so typical of Novak Djokovic, the ultimate master of mind over matter in tennis history.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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