When a remarkable athlete performs at his best, a turn of phrase which most readily comes to mind is “a cheat code.”
That’s what Novak Djokovic has become. He reminded us of this reality on Thursday night in Melbourne.
In 2011, Novak Djokovic defeated Rafael Nadal in the Wimbledon final in four sets. With the win, Djokovic took over the World No. 1 spot from Nadal and continued his incredible year, which had previously included a win streak over 40 matches long. Djokovic was at the top of the tennis world.
We all thought that was the confirmation of the notion that Djokovic controlled tennis. Sure, there were some bumps since then–he even lost the No. 1 ranking to Roger Federer for a few months in 2012–but since 2011, men’s tennis has been Djokovic’s world with everyone else just living in it.
We were wrong.
The actual “changing of the guard” moment in Djokovic’s career was in Thursday’s Australian Open semifinal match. He dominated Roger Federer and gave up three games in the first two sets combined. Doing that in a Grand Slam semifinal is shocking enough. Doing that to Roger Federer? Unimaginable.
Sure, the Serbian’s level dropped off a little after that and Federer, by playing close to his best tennis, managed to win a set. Yet, the match was never in doubt after that initial blitz. Djokovic was the much better player and he had proved it. Upsets still happen — that fact will exist as long as sports do — but Djokovic is clearly on such a different level compared to anyone else in the world.
Which brings us to our point: Djokovic is dominating tennis in a way that we haven’t seen since 2004. Djokovic is now making the other top players look the way Federer made his competition look at the height of his stranglehold on the game. It’s not just that Djokovic can win everything in sight. It’s how he is doing it.
One match, even a tournament or two, would not be enough to draw this conclusion. We saw Juan Martin del Potro blast everyone off the court for much of the summer of 2009. Injuries have derailed him since then, but even when he is healthy the rest of the tour can play against him. A few tournaments didn’t establish dominance, even if he was dominant during those tournaments.
Djokovic, though, had an unreal 2015. He won three out of the four Grand Slam tournaments and reached the final in the fourth. It took a perfect match by Stan Wawrinka to stop him from winning the calendar-year Grand Slam. It’s not pointed out enough, but he had a better year than Serena Williams did in terms of Slam results, even though she received much more fanfare due to the fact that the actual Grand Slam — winning all four in the same year — was a possibility for her heading into the U.S. Open semifinals.
Now Djokovic appears to be on track to do the same thing in 2016.
Six matches is too early to judge, certainly, but the level of dominance displayed can’t be ignored. This was Roger Federer he was playing against, for crying out loud. Federer, who has been ranked in the top 3 for almost the entirety of the last 12 years. Federer, who reached consecutive Slam finals to end last season. Federer, still one of the best tennis players in the world. Most players (save Nadal, of course) still find him nearly unbeatable. Djokovic didn’t just beat him, though. Djokovic eviscerated him.
The question now turns to what the tennis world can do to beat Djokovic. Journalists and analysts, since Djokovic’s win streak hit about 20 matches back in 2011, have been discussing how to beat him on the tennis court. It may be time to end that discussion.
It’s not only because there are no weaknesses in Djokovic’s game. Sure, we can talk about which styles and game plans could exploit certain things, but at that point, it’s all moot. Federer showed in 2011 that he could still be a ball-striker on par with Djokovic. Federer always had the blueprint. Djokovic has now moved past that.
I am sure we will see Djokovic lose his share of matches in 2016. Upsets happen, and even the all-time greats have bad days. However, we will not see the current crop of players–as they stand now, at least–begin to beat him with any consistency whatsoever. He has moved past losses to the usual suspects. Federer, Nadal, and Andy Murray will have a better shot than most other players to pull off the upset, but that is all that it would be. It would be an upset.
For the time being, at least, Djokovic has moved past his main rivals.
Yes, Djokovic is not the youngest of players. He is 28 years old and has been on tour for 13 years. He turns 29 in May. If he can continually get better and raise his game to this high a level, so can anyone else. Who knows? Maybe we will see a Nadal or Murray resurgence that will be able to rival where Djokovic currently sits. Maybe Federer will find another gear and up his game to wear he once again can, shot for shot, outplay Djokovic from the baseline. Maybe one of the young guns will decrypt the key to defeating Djokovic.
As things stand now, though, with only one match between him and his sixth Australian Open title, one thing seems very clear. Novak Djokovic is the prohibitive favorite in men’s tennis. Until his game declines, or until someone else makes a major leap up, he is the dominant force in the tennis world.
All dynasties end eventually. Someday, someone will dethrone Djokovic.
At this point, however, the way he is playing is just not fair.