24 or More – The Greatness of Novak Djokovic

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Bill Simons and Vinay Venkatesh 

New York

What ultimately makes Novak Djokovic so great?

That’s what we asked Janko Tipsarevic, Novak’s close friend and one of the best players in Serbian history. Janko replied, “He wants to be the best of all time and nothing else and is willing to do whatever it takes…Nothing else satisfies his hunger. You saw this with Kobe, LeBron, Ronaldo and Muhammad Ali. If they are not the best, they want to commit suicide.”

Today, after Nole won the US Open over Daniil Medvedev to win his 24th Grand Slam, we reflected on the man’s greatness.

After all, hundreds of millions have picked up tennis rackets around the world. But only one other tennis player, Australian Margaret Court, has ever done what Novak Djokovic did today. 

He’s a wonder. Sure, his body may be relatively old, but it remains sinewy and strong – so much younger than his years. His flexibility astonishes – his twists defy. He masters every detail of competition, from what he eats to how he breathes and how he prepares and recovers. He’s a superb craftsman, whose technique should be put in a tennis bible somewhere. Who has a better return or two-handed backhand? 

He competes with a steely spirit that adapts to whether he’s playing powerful Americans, Spanish conquistadors, or a lanky Russian with a killer backhand.

Novak is severe and goal oriented. His “us against the world” Serbian ethos drives him. Packed arenas may howl for his foe, but Nole uses their shouts as fuel – “Bring it on!” And then he laughs. His wisecracks lighten his load. Playfulness, plus passion for the sport, are key.

Sure, he’s stubborn, and in some ways self-destructive. What other superstar since McEnroe has been booted out of a Slam (the 2020 US Open) or refused to comply with Covid rules?

The man who did deep dive meditations with a Spanish guru, who loves to walk in the park before matches, to sit on the edge of a deep American canyon and visit sacred Kosovan caves is the ATP’s seeker in chief. But, as much as anything, he loves to engage in the battle.

“I will not get a shot,” he told the world, before he was detained for six days in Australia. “Tennis players need a voice. I will create a union.” And, “Kosovo is at the heart of Serbia. It cannot leave our nation.” While many downplay the importance of records, Novak loves them – goals motivate the guy.  

But today he was again facing the man who denied him history. Two years ago when Djokovic was going for the rare and coveted Calendar Grand Slam, he was crushed by Medvedev.

Then again, the Russian octopus loves to disrupt. This year, virtually all of tennis craved a final between Nole and Alcaraz, the sizzling rivalry that’s given us magic. But in the semis, Medvedev said, “No way!” He lifted his game, served big, and subdued Alcaraz with ease. Carlos wasn’t sure what hit him.

But today in the final, it was Medvedev who at first seemed adrift and impassive, while Nole broke fast out of the gate. The Serb’s serve was in rhythm, he took the ball early, his backhand was a laser, his repeated serve and volley tactic was brutally effective. 

After an early break, Nole raced to a convincing 6-3 first-set win. But the other day when we asked Medvedev what, after all these years, he has learned the most from tennis, he replied, “Everything can change very fast.”

No kidding. 

At 3-3, the force of Medvedev’s shots floored Djokovic twice. The Russian, who’d been so flat in the first set, amped up his energy, and started to run Novak to the corners.

Andy Roddick once said, “First Novak takes your legs, then he takes your soul.” But tonight it was Nole who wobbled – Daniil’s punches were landing. Then Djokovic hit a brilliant crosscourt half volley winner. Medvedev couldn’t break through. Long rallies, brilliant Nole net charges, many a change in momentum – the set had everything, including one pivotal point.

Medvedev had a set point at 6-5 and Novak was frozen at the net. Daniil had an open court down the line to grab the set. But he chose to hit it right at Novak. The Serb, who was volleying brilliantly, hit a winner. And the rest was history. Daniil later mused, “Sure [I should have hit] down the line, not cross. I had two choices and I chose the wrong one.” 

Novak was broken early in the second-set tiebreak. But he stormed back and prevailed 7-5 to take a mind-boggling, decisive 1:44 second set. “I have no idea how Novak won that set,” gushed broadcaster Mark Brown. “That’s a set like we will never see for a long time,” added Chris Fowler. 

Now the die was cast. Novak, the ultimate warrior, regained his swagger and explosiveness and marched to a 6-3, 7-6(5), 6-3 win to capture his third Slam of the year and his fourth US Open. Then the oldest champion in Open history rolled up in a fetal position like a baby – what relief.

Daniil said he should have won the match. That he should have changed his return position from far in the court – but was too stubborn to do so. Yes, Medvedev confided, the loss was painful. But, then again, Djokovic has inflicted so much pain on so many. 

So once more we wondered: why? We asked the Serb’s coach Goran Ivanisevic about Nole’s ferocity, and whether it’s something you can work on. Goran replied, “I don’t think you can work on that. Some people are born [with it]. He’s a genius.

“This is one of the biggest achievements in sports history…When you tell him he cannot do something, it’s even worse…He always tries to find a way to win, how to fight, even when he’s not feeling well. I cannot say that we from the Balkans are all like that, because we’re not. He’s one of a kind, and that’s why he’s the best.”

Novak himself said his winning “was a big battle within himself.” He added that he didn’t remember having been so exhausted after points as he was in the second set, which he thought was the longest set he’d ever played. Nole conceded that Daniil should have won the set, but his keeping the ball in play was key.

Djokovic, who now has won seven of the last nine majors, and this year faced four different players in the four Slam finals, said, “There’s always something I’m trying to add to my game.” A devoted dad, he spoke of the innocent joy of seeing his daughter cheer from the front row. He joked that he was not going to become a serve and volleyer, and added, “I’ll leave [tennis] in 23, 24 years.”

For Novak, “One of the biggest lessons I have learned…is that even if you find a formula that works, it’s not a guarantee, and actually most likely it’s not going to work the next year. You need to reinvent yourself, because everyone else does. As a 36-year-old competing with 20-year-olds, I probably have to do it more. lt’s a constant, evolving process.”

He then recalled that when he was a boy his family “had to face atrocities…[and] it was more about bringing the bread to the kitchen table…So reflecting on the whole journey, it’s been an incredible, incredible ride that we all can be very proud of.”

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