Australian Open: Djokovic in the time of a Fedal revival

Serbia's Novak Djokovic reacts during their Davis Cup quarterfinal tennis match against Spain's Albert Ramos-Vinolas, in Belgrade, Serbia.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic reacts during their Davis Cup quarterfinal tennis match against Spain's Albert Ramos-Vinolas, in Belgrade, Serbia.

The Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry is probably the most sentimental of rivalries in tennis. The aesthetic appeal of Federer’s play pitted against the more down-to-earth rugged artistry of Nadal’s has set up a convenient binary fans revel in.

It didn’t matter that before Federer’s recent hot streak — five straight wins over Nadal — it was the most lopsided of rivalries. Nor did it matter that amid the din of Federer and Nadal re-establishing their duopoly in 2017, much of the tennis world around them had a dishevelled look to it.

There is one man, though, who, for a good part of his career, has thrillingly disrupted this binary. Novak Djokovic. He has not always been fully appreciated — a goofy sense of humour and a range of antics including chest-thumping and roaring have at times detracted from the perception of his success.


It is only now, as the haze clears over the wreckage of the 2017 season during which many players crumbled with injury, coupled with the slow realisation that Federer and Nadal may be unable to repeat last year’s exploits, that people seem to realise Djokovic’s worth. His return, after a six-month injury layoff, at the Australian Open, where he is a six-time champion, will be a rebirth of sorts.

When Djokovic first came of age, Federer and Nadal were at the zenith. The first time he broke the hegemony was in 2011 when he won three Majors and reached the semifinal of the other, and put together one of the best seasons ever played. He won 70 of his 76 matches and even went 41 matches without a defeat.

Read: Why has Novak Djokovic lost his winning touch

Then, from the start of 2015 to mid-2016, when he won five of the six Majors and became the first man since 1969 to hold all four Grand Slam singles titles at the same time, he arguably played at a level unmatched in tennis history.

The Federer serve, the Nadal forehand and the Murray backhand are all stand-out shots; individually, Djokovic might never top them. But no one perhaps can hit as powerfully as the Serb, from both wings, with pace and spin, at a multitude of angles, even when on defence.

Considering the level of difficulty he has had to cope with, it is all the more astonishing.

In the 12 Majors he has won, he has had to beat other Big Four members Nadal, Federer and Murray 19.05% of the time! He has also had to overcome top-5 and top-10 players 22.63% and 32.14% of the time, respectively. His opponents in finals were on average ranked 5.75. The equivalent numbers for Federer (until the 2017 Australian Open) are 8.06%, 15.32%, 31.45% and 15.89.

So dominant was Djokovic since the loss to Nadal at the 2013 US Open that he outclassed the Spaniard 11 times in the next 13 meetings. In the same period, he beat Federer 11 times out of 17 (including one walkover) and Murray 14 times out of 17. Nadal captured this best when he remarked just last month that Djokovic had reached a higher level than Federer.

“It’d be unfair to say that Federer isn’t the best I’ve ever played against because the titles and his track record prove that to be the case,” he said. “But at a technical level, when Djokovic has been at the top of his game, I have to say that I’ve been up against an invincible player.”

But Djokovic didn’t just elevate his own game. He triggered improvements in others too. As much as Federer and Nadal fed off each other, it was not until last January that the dynamic of their match-up evolved into a more complex cat and mouse game.

In contrast, Nadal, especially after the nearly six-hour long Australian Open final loss to Djokovic in 2012, realised that there was now someone who could outlast him, and switched to a more attacking game in 2013, with which he found considerable success.

Then in 2017, after nearly three years of suffering against Djokovic, the 10-time French Open champion appeared to change gears again, adding more pop to his serve and massively strengthening his double-handed backhand to better handle Djokovic’s incessant pounding.

And when Djokovic made grass — a surface which Andre Agassi called “ice slathered with Vaseline” — feel like clay, leaving not a single blade uncovered, Federer was left with no choice but to shore up his defence. Over five pulsating sets in the 2014 Wimbledon final, Djokovic won 18 rallies which lasted longer than 9 strokes. But so did Federer.

What then can one expect in 2018, as the 12-time Major winner finds himself in the middle of another Fedal narrative? Additional watch-ability, for one. The sight of a rejuvenated Federer, probably the greatest offensive player tennis has seen, taking on Djokovic, the most outstanding defender the game has had, in the opening Grand Slam, is enticing. So is Djokovic’s match-up against World No. 1 Nadal.

These will have to wait till the later stages of the tournament — Djokovic’s current ranking of 14 has handed him a rough draw. Potential pitfalls include Gael Monfils in the second round, Alexander Zverev in the fourth, Stan Wawrinka or Dominic Thiem in the quarters and finally Federer in the last four.

There is also the Plexicushion court to consider, which, in spite of repeated denials by the authorities, looked faster than ever last year. The situation seems tailor-made for his coach Agassi to step in, for rarely has anyone seen the ball and taken it as early as the American, even on slick surfaces.

In fact, the Australian Open was one Slam Agassi made his own, winning it five times. It is also perhaps the only place to offer Djokovic unconditional love. Maybe the stars have aligned to prove once and for all how consequential Djokovic’s quest has always been.

The Contenders

Roger Federer

It’s remarkable that a 36-year-old is the pre-tournament favourite at a Major. But if No. 20 comes, no one should be surprised

Ranked: No. 2

Best Australian Open finish: Winner (2004, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2017)

Rafael Nadal

A second Aussie Open will make Nadal's trophy cabinet well-rounded for he has won all other Slams at least twice. But will his creaky knees hold up for two full weeks?

Ranked: No. 1

Best Australian Open finish: Winner (2009)

Novak Djokovic

Melbourne is familiar territory and a fully-fit Djokovic is near-invincible here. He has his dodgy right elbow to take care of and a tough draw to overcome.

Ranked: No. 14

Best Australian Open finish: Winner (2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016)

The Dark Horses

Stan Wawrinka

An expert at coming out of nowhere and winning a Slam, Wawrinka will literally come out of nowhere in Melbourne following an injury lay-off. This will be his first outing since last July

Nick Kyrgios

The Australian won in Brisbane last week. But whenever one has tried extrapolating his results, he has never lived up to those expectations. Still, when on song, he is a formidable threat.

Alexander Zverev

The German is quickly becoming everybody's second favourite. But his record at the Majors — 12 wins and 10 losses — is a cause for concern. Maybe he will come of age in Australia.

Grigor Dimitrov

Ranked 3

The Bulgarian is coming off his biggest title – the 2017 ATP World Tour Finals. There is now a big opportunity to build on his semifinal finish in Australia last year.

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Printable version | Jun 14, 2022 1:05:03 pm |